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Pigskin and Pagliacci
Athlete-turned-opera star Keith Miller sings in Savannah
Opera singer Keith Miller

Bass baritone Keith Miller joined the Metropolitan Opera's permanent roster three years ago. These days, the handsome, square-jawed 35-year-old vocalist is in demand, a Grammy winner who's paid his dues with Don Giovanni, Le Nozze di Figaro and Madama Butterfly and sings with regularity in the toniest opera houses around the world.

Miller, who's in Savannah this week as artist-in-residence for the Sankofa Male Chorale and Savannah Children's Choir (holding vocal workshops and dispensing career advice), will appear in recital Thursday at the Lucas Theatre.
He's also sharing the marquee with the Sankofa group Wednesday at St. Peter's A.M.E. Church.

Both shows are free.

A circuitous route brought the native of tiny Ovid, Colo. to the opera stage. At the University of Colorado in the mid 1990s, Miller was a starting fullback for the Buffalos, and he spent the first half of the current decade on reserve rosters for the Denver Broncos and the Oakland Raiders.

But he loved opera, too, and he loved singing. When his football career fumbled - he was hoping the Broncos would choose him to plug a hole in their roster, but it didn't happen - Miller made the decision to devote his talents (and his considerable energy to music.

And he hasn't looked back.

Did those around you try to talk you out of the change? Were there disbelievers?

Keith Miller: I was married before; my wife was the singer, and I was the jock who liked music, you know? And when I started to go into it, her family at first was like "Oh, that's nice, how cute," like picking out a new puppy.

To some point, I see where they were coming from - "Why are you kidding yourself? You have no training, you're a jock, and my daughter spent $50,000 on a Masters degree." They discouraged me a great deal.

You pay a price. I gained a vocation and it cost me a marriage. But I don't regret anything, and I don't think my ex-wife does either. Sometimes things just don't work out; I know she's happy now where she's at, and I'm much happier where I'm at.

I think the competitive force is why I had more success than she did. She'd been in this vocal competition three times, and never won, and I won it the first time I went out. You can't go up there and be timid in any way, whether it's an audition or anything. And when I got to the Academy of Vocal Arts, I worked my butt off.

I had no training, so nobody knew -and I didn't either - that it would go to this extent. A tight end friend of mine, Adam Young, he's a chopper pilot for the Coast Guard. I would have never expected him to become that, either.

Talent has a lot to do with it, too, wouldn't you say?

Keith Miller: Well, there are things you have no control over. It's like LeBron James, he's got a 5-foot-tall mother and he's 6-foot-8 and 250 pounds. He's who he is, and I can't do anything about how I sound, or the size of my voice, or the color, or the bass or the baritone - but you try not to take things for granted.

Do you still mess around with a football?

Keith Miller: I still train very diligently. I believe that's one of my assets, the way I physically prepare my body for things - some of it's the same football stuff, and some of it is different. I still do my cone drills.

The thing that I miss the most about it is hitting someone. Every once in a while I think "I'll go over to Europe and play for a couple of months, just have some fun and hit some people again."

Could you do both things at the same time?

Keith Miller: When I did it before, it was a job. It's a different mindset. Now, I like the training, but you don't have time to do that at the same time as trying to sing. It becomes all-encompassing. It's like trying to be an attorney and an opera singer. You can't.

Well, if you can, God bless you, but one of the two of them is going to suffer. If you use the same discipline and passion, you could balance both at maybe 80-20, but you can't have 100-100. That's just simple math.

Is your story that unusual? Why do you think it fascinates people?

Keith Miller: I don't know many kids in grade school who say "When I grow up, I want to be an opera singer." I'm sure there's an amazing, remarkable story behind every person that's ever sung.

I think people don't understand that sports and the performing arts are so similar in the competitive nature and the preparation. That's what they don't see as the link between the two. Athletics and music, there's a lot of attention paid to precision and details.

When you say performing is competitive, do you mean "I'm going up against everybody else on that stage, and I'm going to beat them?"

Keith Miller: The competitive thing comes in the preparation process, and that's the same for an athlete. If you're a linebacker, and you know every play your opponent is going to do before they run it - because you're prepared, you've seen the film - there's nothing that they can do to stump you. And that gives you confidence.

In performing, you have to be completely, immaculately prepared, and confident in your technique, your ability, your interpretation ... and that leads to confidence. It's not like you're going to out and say "I'm going to be the best," because who are we kidding? You could be the greatest singer in the world and no one likes you.

Keith Miller in Recital

Where: Lucas Theatre, 32 Abercorn St.

When: 7 p.m. Thursday

Keith Miller/Sankofa Male Chorale

Where: St. Peter's A.M.E. Church, 624 Staley Ave.

When: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday

Both shows are free. Online: