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Romance in the Rafters

Millers gift a musical treasure trove to UCSB’s Library

When it comes to the world of opera, musical theater and operettas, people’s tastes vary. One can love the drama and pathos of opera, while another might prefer librettos laced with comedy. One thing is for certain, however: these art forms must be experienced.

“[Operetta is] an escape,” says avid collector and historian Michael Miller. “[It’s] a way to get away from the real world for a while and have everything work out nicely.”

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Michael and his wife Nan recently donated a musical treasure trove to UCSB: their entire collection of 60,000 recordings, 15,000 pieces of sheet music, 9,000 books, 5,000 vocal scores and other materials devoted to operetta and early musical theater. This unprecedented collection will be released upon their deaths and enrich UCSB’s Library in uncharted ways.

“I wanted a final resting place for [the collection],” Michael says. “I began thinking about where this all might wind up.”

The Millers’ passion for operetta is undisputed. With a collection like theirs and an operetta foundation specially established by them, the Millers exemplify arts patronage. It is not simply a matter of liking the music but “trying to bring back a form of entertainment that is struggling to survive,” reflects Michael.

“The whole thing is really for a romantic,” says Nan, who shares a love of collecting with husband. “[It’s] part of the escape; I like old-fashioned romance.”

Indeed, romance is important to the Millers who share almost 37 years of marriage. They faced learning curves over the years as they developed their prowess for collecting.

 “In the early days, I’d be up in the rafters in bookstores,” laughs Michael, “and I’d look down and there was Nan sitting in a chair with nothing to do. But that quickly changed.”

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Nan takes this humor in stride and has since developed her own passion for collecting. Her library is much different from Michael’s in that her focus is mystery books that deal with opera, art or classical music. So far, Nan has accumulated over 800 mystery books with playful titles like “Death on the High C’s” and “Orchestrated Death.” She says reading them is great fun but finding them is even more exciting: “You stumble on something and find something you didn’t know existed.”

UCSB librarian Leahkim Gannett couldn’t be happier: “The Millers’ collection contains LPs and 78 RPM recordings that cannot be found on iTunes or DVD catalogues.”

Gannett, whose specialties include communication, dance, theater, and film and media studies,   asserts that these rare materials render them a “gold mine for scholars to dig into.” This is particularly important because musical theater and operetta are historically understudied.

“[The Millers] are so sweet, they’re so passionate, and they really care about the long term care of the collection,” says Gannett.  Their bequest was specially designed to include a $1 million endowment to fund the costs of packing, moving, processing and sustaining the collection. This aspect makes the Millers’ gift extraordinarily unique, revealing their consideration for the longevity of these materials.  

“A friend once told me that you can’t collect everything,” says Michael; so the Millers decided to collect something. And that something will have lasting impact on UCSB’s Library, revitalizing what was once the world’s most popular form of entertainment.