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One of four soloists in “Mass for the Oppressed,” Miller was joined by Seattle soprano Tess Altiveros, a veteran of numerous world premieres, mezzo soprano Toby Newman, whose resume includes multiple recordings and concerts at Carnegie Hall and other major venues, and English tenor Barry Banks, who regularly performs on the stages of the world’s leading opera houses.
Juneau surgeon sings on composition for Fairbanks Four 051717 AE 1 Thomas Kellar, For the Capital City Weekly One of four soloists in “Mass for the Oppressed,” Miller was joined by Seattle soprano Tess Altiveros, a veteran of numerous world premieres, mezzo soprano Toby Newman, whose resume includes multiple recordings and concerts at Carnegie Hall and other major venues, and English tenor Barry Banks, who regularly performs on the stages of the world’s leading opera houses.

Cover of "Alaska Medicine," the annual magazine of the Alaska State Medical Association for September 2013, on which Dr. David Miller is featured. Courtesy image.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Story last updated at 5/16/2017 - 4:28 pm

Juneau surgeon sings on composition for Fairbanks Four

The first thing that jumps out during a visit with Juneau surgeon Dr. David Miller is the man’s humility. Though he possesses world-class skills as an opera singer and has worked side by side with celebrated composers, singers and musicians, he is not always comfortable discussing his own contributions. He becomes the master of understatement, minimizing his role in a production while lauding the talents of those he is partnering with. The man truly believes he has been blessed, while not altogether sure he is deserving of the opportunities he has earned.

Miller’s performance in a very recent Emerson Eads’ world premiere of “Mass for the Oppressed” is proof positive he more than deserves the attention. No less an expert than Gregory Buchalter, then assistant conductor at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City has said of Miller: “He is an excellent singer. He has a wonderful bass voice … I work with the world’s greatest singers, so for me to compliment David definitely means something.”

One of four soloists in “Mass for the Oppressed,” Miller was joined by Seattle soprano Tess Altiveros, a veteran of numerous world premieres, mezzo soprano Toby Newman, whose resume includes multiple recordings and concerts at Carnegie Hall and other major venues, and English tenor Barry Banks, who regularly performs on the stages of the world’s leading opera houses.

Miller was admittedly delighted when contacted by Eads for a role in “Mass for the Oppressed,” if not slightly intimidated by the level of talent involved.

“He called me and asked if I’d be interested in his project and I said ‘of course,’” Miller said. “When he told me of the others taking roles, I was speechless. I first met him (Eads) five years ago and was very impressed. He is a sort of tormented soul who is constantly working. His compositions force me to be at my best.”

Eads is a composer and conductor who spent much of his early life growing up in Fairbanks. He has stated that “Mass for the Oppressed” was his response to the release from prison of George Frese, Eugene Vent, Marvin Roberts, and Kevin Pease – Alaska Natives collectively known as The Fairbanks Four. After 18 years of incarceration, the quartet had their convictions overturned and were freed. Though not Catholic, Eads chose the structure of the Mass as a way of communicating the emotion and gravitas of the story.

“While the Fairbanks Four represent a local Alaskan issue, it speaks to a much wider and systematic problem in our nation’s criminal justice system, where the poor and underprivileged are often victimized,” Eads said. “This realization, along with the Jubilee Year of Mercy proclaimed by Pope Francis, spurred me to compose the ‘Mass for the Oppressed.’”

On “Mass for the Oppressed,” noted musicologist Susan Youens said: “From the aching dissonances in the introduction to the plangent duet for tenor and baritone that leads into the “Gloria,” from the complex rhythmic patterns of the “Gloria” to the emotional pavane for soprano solo at ‘Domine Fili unigenite’ and much more, this is a truly sterling addition to the sacred repertory and proof that music can join forces with what is best in humanity: its care for justice … (At the close of ‘Mass for the Oppressed’) we feel that we have been on a momentous spiritual journey.”

Miller arrived in Alaska 12 years ago via a stint in the Air Force as a surgeon in South Korea. Born in California, he has lived in Kansas and Colorado. Part of his talent is explained by the singing gene he inherited from his classically trained mother, also an opera singer. His vocal participation in the Eads Mass is fitting, having grown up singing under her tutelage in the Presbyterian church they attended.

“I’ve always approached music as being sacred,” Miller said. “And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been drawn to the challenge of operatic performance.”

So the question must be asked: Is Miller an opera singer who is also a highly successful surgeon and past President of the Alaska State Medical Board, or a doctor who happens to have also “performed major operatic roles throughout his home state,” perfectly capable of moving an audience with the richness of his deep bass voice?

Judge for yourself: To see the live performance of Miller and the “Mass for the Oppressed,” go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hwrh1Ei-OWY. All proceeds from the project go to support the Alaska Innocence Project, which was instrumental in securing the release of the Fairbanks Four.

Thomas Kellar is a freelance writer living in Juneau.