a cultural gymnasium for the curious runner
Running in Music and Theatre
It Ain't Over' Til the Fit Lady Sings
At first I thought it was a surreal comedy sketch, up there with Monty Python's '100 Metres Dash for People with No Sense of Direction' and 'The Philosophers' Football Match', but 'It Ain't Over 'til the Fit Lady Sings' is actually a real running event which is already on my bucket list.
Located in Bozeman, Montana, USA, this is an annual 'intermountain opera run' where runners are serenaded at the water stations by professional opera singers, many of whom have been brought in for the Intermountain Opera season. This set me thinking about their choice of playlist and whether running had ever featured in any operatic work.
Now you may think that onstage running while delivering spoken dialogue in a play would be challenging enough (and, yes, there are a few such plays), but imagine trying to synchronise the controlled breathing you need for singing with the controlled gasping you need for your oxygen debt. Some of us have even found it a struggle to join in 'Oggi, oggi, oggi!', which for the uninitiated is not a Verdi aria, but a traditional kind of ensemble shouting that has echoed for half a century through underpasses and tunnels during many a city marathon.
The operatic soprano and marathon runner, Lisette Oropesa, seen below as Nannetta in Verdi's 'Falstaff' at the New York Met in 2013, has a few tips for singing runners in her 2014 book, 'Running, Singing and Being Vegan', in which she describes the significant improvements to her onstage breathing, her mental toughness and her confidence since she took up running. She always warms up for a performance with a four mile afternoon run: 'I run before I sing', she says with Cartesian succinctness.
For now, I'll keep you guessing about the only other opera that I am aware of that features onstage athletes, but what about that operatic playlist for the singers at those water stations back in Bozeman? What arias or duets would spur you on, molto allegro, as you cross the famous Bozeman trail in the footsteps of Red Cloud (who won his own famous victory here in his war against the U.S. Cavalry)?
Well, one candidate would seem to be 'Grimes is at his exercise', an insistently repeated refrain in Benjamin Britten's magnificent 'Peter Grimes', but this is 'exercise' at its darkest. Rumours of cruelty, sex abuse and murder are spreading through a small fishing village, and the gossips of The Borough seem to be jumping to conclusions about the outsider Grimes and his boy apprentices - hardly the most uplifting theme to propel runners on their way around a 10-miler.
And surely there must be potential for an appropriate aria or two from Handel's pastoral opera about the woman who was the 'greatest runner' on earth? Unfortunately, his 'Atalanta' completely ignores the eponymous heroine's legendary racing exploits, concentrating instead on the love story surrounding her chase of the gigantic Calydonian boar, the only mammal doing any actual running here. Atalanta's arioso, 'Care selve' ('Beloved woods'), however, is a favourite at concert recitals and wouldn't sound out of place at the more rural water stations.
Although 'The Flying Dutchmum' was a famous runner's sobriquet inspired by Wagner's opera of almost the same name, it isn't referring to any athletic endeavour on the part of his lonesome sailor. It was a moniker given by the international press to the extraordinary Fanny Blankers-Koen, the Netherlands mother who won the gold medal in every women's running event at the 1948 London Olympics (she was also the world record-holder in the long jump and high jump at the time, and was named Female Athlete of the Century by the IAAF in 1999).
Considered too old at 30, the athlete's participation as a mother had been criticised, giving the operatic link an ironic twist: a legendary mum returns to controversy in Holland with all that gold, only to be named after an opera in which a legendary Dutchman laments 'What good are jewels to me? I have neither wife nor child....'
The other nickname she acquired, The Amazing Fanny, is less widely used these days.
So, I'm stumped. The Running Muse would be delighted to hear your own suggestions for all those opera singers gathered around the energy drinks next year. Of course, the most enjoyable way to find out which tunes grace the Bozeman water stations would be to run in the race, whether allegro con brio or rallentando.
Meanwhile, it just so happens that you can watch runners singing in the most unlikely of circumstances in next week's blog........altogether now - 'Feet they hardly touch the ground.......'
* '1896 - PHEIDIPPIDES....corri ancora!'
** 'Run for your Life' was written by John Lennon in 1965 but banned by some radio stations in 1992 for its alleged 'promotion of violence against women'.
World Premiere of Laura Sheeran's 'Run'
To celebrate today's launch, The Running Muse is excited to present the world premiere of singer-songwriter Laura Sheeran's 'Run', the first of our commissions of original works of art with a running theme. The very word 'music' comes from the Greek muses who inspired literature, science, dance and music, and The Running Muse is the latest addition to that pantheon!
We had asked Laura more in hope than expectation whether she would be interested in responding musically to any aspect of the running experience, and she came back to us with this beautiful running track, recorded with three of the most talented performers in Ireland. She threw a bit of behind-the-scenes chat in for good measure, and even helped design our logo for us.
This work is nothing like those running tracks you may be used to listening to while out jogging, the main goal of which seems to be to mimic the rhythms of a runner's footfall or to motivate you lyrically. This is music about running, but not necessarily music for running to. It's very different to the pounding soundtrack of Run Lola Run, for instance, although both works could be classed as electronica (see Film page).
Conversely, the more measured electronic rhythms of the Chariots of Fire film accompany slow-motion scenes of group running.....and Laura's 'Run' seems to move even further away from the need to suggest the cadences of footfall, summoning up instead the rhythms of breathing, heartbeat and blood flow, as different parts of the body accommodate to the demands being placed on them.
From the beginning, this particular listener also hears the wind mingling with his own breathing from the start, as he laces up his shoes and contemplates a run through the hills. For some, there is a monastic aspect to running, a runner alone in nature but not lonely, an on-your-own stillness moving through the world, but Laura zooms even further out with her lyric here: 'Run free through spacetime....'. As the body warms up and adjusts its own tempo and harmonies, so does she, and an inner rhythm emerges at the heart of all those moving limbs.
Her lyric also links to a fascinating ancient running conundrum, Zeno's Paradox, which continues to shed light on our understanding of reality, no less (see Philosophy and Language page).
Anyway, see how you respond to it, maybe close your eyes and imagine yourself at the beginning of a run through a particular landscape.........
Here's a video clip of Laura chatting a little about the piece....her experience of running is limited to running to and from work as a teenager and a few jogs around a Dublin park and the Wicklow Gap, but she has nevertheless created a wonderful running soundscape here.
'Rift' by Natalie McGrath
And now, a race report: 'We ran from the top of the Heights to the park, without stopping - Catherine completely beaten in the race because she was barefoot. You'll have to look for her shoes in the bog tomorrow.'
No, this is not from the Sodbury Slog or a Tough Mudder - the two runners here are Cathy and Heathcliff, for whom 'running around the moors all day was one of their chief amusements' in Emily Brontë's 'Wuthering Heights'. Her novel was written during the Romantic period, when many artists turned to nature and to the human emotional landscape in reaction to the soulless mechanics of the Industrial Revolution and the rationalisations of 19th century science.
Since then, moors have been associated in the imagination with solitude and freedom, their wild, often bleak weather an image for the passion that can lurk stifled within an everyday urban melancholy. Before this, walking the moors was merely a matter of getting from A to B, but now it became a choice for many with leisure time to commune with 'God's creation' or escape the overcrowded towns. For many poets especially, any remote wilderness was a workplace, a sublime source of inspiration.
Today, of course, the high moors are not only a haven for walkers, but a playground for runners going from A to B, whether in races or in training:
Doesn't look much like a moor, does it, but this is Exmoor, the opening setting for one of the few works of theatre to feature onstage running - 'Rift', a 2012 play by Natalie McGrath set both in Exmoor and in Kenya's Rift Valley.
The drama explores the connections and fault-lines between two runners thousands of miles apart: the connections are made through running and tragedy, the fault-lines through culture and personal history. Both runners are turning the same earth with their feet, while the differing landscapes, the one verdant and misty, the other stark and rumbling, inspire a poetic voice in each character.
The first half of the play sees Alice pick up a pair of trainers that belonged to a recently deceased boyfriend and go for her first ever run, while Nuru trains barefooted in pursuit of his Olympic dream. Their monologues become dialogue in the second part, set some years earlier, when Alice's work as a geologist has taken her to the Rift valley.
Alice had always resented her lover going out jogging so often. When he is run over by a car while doing so, she feels convinced he'd still be alive if she'd been out there running alongside him. Nuru, too, has had his fair share of loss and deprivation in tribal conflicts, but seismic shifts can be creative as well as destructive, and they are each running along paths that may or may not lead to a healing of their inner rifts. Eventually those paths cross.......
Natalie McGrath writes in the programme that she wanted to set up a counterpoint in the play between "a sense of motion and the meaning of what it means to be still", a theme that has engaged poets, scientists and philosophers since Zeno and Aristotle, not to mention sports psychologists today. The onstage running uses stylised, energetic, on-the-spot movements: they are both still and moving, like the head of a cheetah.
Can't see that happening today on Exmoor...........mind you, one teenager, John Ridd, had to run for his life all night there, albeit in a novel, R.D. Blackmore's 'Lorna Doone: A Romance of Exmoor', where Ridd describes how 'the nimbleness given thereon to my heels was in front of meditation'.
Nuru and Jean Patrick have had many real life counterparts running the Rift while dreaming of Olympic gold, some of whom fell victim to the tribal conflicts, but here's Brit athlete Mo Farah running in 2010 in the Great Rift Valley, not too far from where he was born:
"I can be still for you", Nuru says to Alice. In his poems and drama,
T. S. Eliot wrote repeatedly of a 'still point', not only of the turning world or the wheel of life, but in time itself. Runners, too, speak of their time on the road as a space for reflection, and this play gives a sense of that inner pause moving along.......along a road less run, perhaps, or along an ancient way, moving and rumbling.
'Rift' was staged in 2012 at the Taunton Brewhouse as part of the Cultural Olympiad, the arts festival that runs in parallel with the Olympic Games and is the successor to the arts competitions of the modern Olympics, last held at the 1948 Games.
Natalie McGrath is a playwright based in England's West Country.
Jokers in the Pack
There are many instances of comedians becoming runners, but rather fewer of runners becoming comedians. In the UK, for instance, Eddie Izzard and John Bishop have run many a marathon, but we're unlikely to see the likes of Jessica Ennis or Mo Farah doing stand-up.
But do you recognise this young American athlete in his school track team photo, a man who would go on to become one of the greatest stand-up comedians, a global star celebrated for the breathless pace, energy and originality of his onstage work? By the time of this 1969 pic, he had already run both the half mile and the 800 metres in less than 2 minutes, and his 4 x 400 metres relay team held the record there for decades. When he died last year, Runner's World paid tribute to his little-known running exploits.
Yep, it's Robin Williams, of course, pictured here at Redwood High School in California, where his class voted him 'the least likely to succeed'. He subsequently moved to New York to attend the Juilliard and joined the West Side YMCA running team, aged 23. In his first race he came 20th out of 250 in the hilly Central Park 10k in a time of 34.21 mins, and he was a regular participant in the club's weekly 16-mile training runs.
Once he achieved fame, he had little time for running, only returning to it after a couple of decades of cocaine addiction in which he had become the proverbial sad clown hiding depression behind the painted smile. He credited exercise, particularly cycling and cross-country running, with saving his life at that time, and he was a pioneer in the support of athletes with disabilities.
Here he is at 50 finishing a tough cross-country 4-miler at the Lonach Highland Games in Scotland:
In his stand-up act, he would occasionally make references to running - joking, for instance, about barefooted runner Abebe Bikile having to carry his sponsored shoes while storming to victory in the 1964 Olympic marathon. The clip below sees him comparing the 'runner's high' to the effects of cocaine:
In contrast to those quick-fire bullets of humour, English running comedy has mostly been far more sedate and visual. Here is Simon Pegg, for instance, star of the 2007 film, 'Run, Fatboy, Run', learning how to use starting blocks on the BBC's comedy sketch show, Big Train:
The recent British film The Imitation Game has another example of the understated running joke. It shows Alan Turing, himself an Olympic standard marathon runner, painfully trying to tell this one to his codebreaking team because he has been persuaded that their efforts would make better progress if he were to become friendlier, working with them rather than apart from them:
'Two hunters come across an enormous bear rampaging towards them, at the sight of which one of them hurriedly puts on a pair of running shoes.
"What on earth are you doing?", says the other, "We'll never outrun that bear!"
"I know", replied the first, "but all I have to do is outrun you....." '
The scriptwriter presumably chose this joke to reflect not only Turing's preoccupation with solo running and his unregenerative lack of team spirit, but also his logical mind, not to mention the more serious race he had entered, the race to crack each day's new code and build a faster-running machine to keep ahead of the 'bear', i.e., the Germans' Enigma variations.
Staying with the UK's gentle comedy gold, here's Monty Python's updating of the Olympic event schedule, including a couple of visits to the 'marathon for incontinents' and the '100 metre dash for people with no sense of direction':
There has actually been a long tradition of running jokes dating back at least to Nicarchus' 1st century epigram about a particularly bad runner who came seventh out of six. The oldest existing joke book, the 4th century Philogelos ('laughter lover') from Greece, also has fun at the expense of athletes.
One rather Pythonesque scenario in it has two astonished Abderites looking up at a famed athlete who has been crucified by the roadside, upon which one exclaims to the other 'By the gods, he may not be running much now, but, wow, can he fly!' (Abderites, the inhabitants of Abdera in Thrace, were supposedly gullible and uneducated, an ancient instance of the portrayal of a particular section of the population as archetypal fools).
This kind of non-PC humour has virtually disappeared from public comedy performance in the West, but it is still alive and kicking around the internet, where the ascription of stupidity to stereotypes continues to generate laughter of the nervous, naughty-but-funny type.
For instance, a quick online trawl finds jokes4us.com telling of the skinny blonde running backwards to gain weight, but it loses something as a joke in an era when skinny blondes win Olympic medals and run academic institutions, and the rest of the joke would still have been funny enough on its own. Maybe, like the Wise Men of Gotham*, history's supposed fools have indeed persisted in their 'folly' long enough to be deemed wise, as William Blake almost said.
Anyway, today's Apollo (the London comedy venue, not the god) would not exactly be rolling in the aisles at those old Abderite gags in the Philogelos collection, the jokes4us of its day, although many have been proposed as the origins of modern jokes, including Monty Python's 'dead parrot' sketch.
Other butts of ancient humour in it include Marcus, a hoplite runner (i.e., running in full armour, which was an event in the Games at Olympia) who lost a 200 yards race......by 200 yards! The stadium was closed before he had finished, as he was so slow that he was thought to be one of the statues, and when it was re-opened the next year, he was only just finishing.
Another 'funny' one simply describes a certain Eutychides as 'a slow racer, except when going to supper', while this more satirical one fires a salvo at corrupt soothsayers:
'Menecles was an athlete who went to see the prophet Olympus, wanting to know whether he was going to win at the Games. After inspecting his fee (a sacrifice), the seer remarked: "You will win - unless anyone overtakes you, sir." '
Most of today's running jokes rely on wordplay: the runner who ran for three hours but only moved two feet, the forgetful runner who jogs his memory, the podiatrist whose sign reads 'Time wounds all heels'.
Mmm.....I'm not sure there's been much improvement in 2000 years of written running comedy, but there's always the visual kind. Running somehow seems funny when speeded up, as in the old silent films (or even in Benny Hill).
So I'll finish by showing you some visual running gags from deadpan jester Buster Keaton, seen here in 'College' (1927). A comedian once said that comedy at its best could produce great art, citing Keaton's work as an example.....that comedian was Robin Williams, who was one of us, a runner.:
'What made the Greeks Laugh?' by Mary Beard, Times Literary Supplement, 18th February 2009
* The inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham all pretended to be imbeciles when King John's messengers arrived demanding that they built a road through the area for the king to travel along to his hunting lodge. They hoped that engaging in absurd activities, such as drowning eels and building roofless bird enclosures, would be enough to sabotage the plans. It worked, but at a cost to their reputation, and they became known as the 'fools of Gotham'.
Only when it was later realised how clever they'd been were they referred to as the 'Wise Men of Gotham'. Six hundred years later, Gotham stuck as a nickname for New York (up until it became the 'Big Apple') after Washington Irving invoked the Gotham story when describing the politics and culture of the 'ingenious idiots' of New York, and it subsequently gave its name to Gotham City, Batman's home city based on New York.
The Running Muse
However, any running to be found in opera is generally done by lovers fleeing their pursuers or hiding in wardrobes. The occasional revolutionary malcontent is chased by the forces of Laura Norder, and breathless messengers bring news of offstage intrigue, but, for the most part, operatic heroes, heroines and couriers are not to be found huffing and puffing around an onstage 10k in Seville or Mtsensk. The furthest they run is into the stage wings, usually silently. There may be plenty of operatic talk about running or exercise, but not much actual running (a situation many runners will be familiar with). However, believe it or not, there are at least two opera libretti that require onstage athletes........
One is Italian composer Luca Belcastro's rather tortuously titled (and eccentrically capitalised) 2004 opera, '1896-PHEIDIPPIDES......run again!'*, based on the true characters and events surrounding the 1896 revival in Athens of the ancient Olympic games. After a first act portraying the genesis of the games, the opera launches into the track and field events themselves (including the 100 metres, pictured below at the actual games) before finishing in the final act with the marathon.
Much of the libretto consists of poetic texts, memoirs, newspaper cuttings and extracts from official documents, some of which are sung and some recited, while mime and dance is used for a few of the events.
The characters themselves span three millennia: amongst others, they include Homer, Virgil, De Coubertin, various muses, the athletes and a fans' chorus, not to mention the stadium announcer. All sing or speak in their own language (for the all-English version, a 'strong accent' is advised in the stage directions), and there is back-projection of a series of photographs from the real events.
Although the opera won an award at the 2001 International Composition Competition in Athens, it is not clear whether it has ever been performed as a drama in its entirety, so we do not know how the staging and breathing issues were to be resolved (the libretto requires at least two of the athletes to be tenors).
Classical allusions pepper the story: Pindar's odes to victors at Olympia begin each act, while the games from the Iliad and the Aeneid bring historical context, validation and prestige to the work. The Muses of history, tragedy and poetry comment on the action, as do historians and a narrator.
The athletic action sees the USA garnering most of the medals, to the vocal chagrin of the spectators, but their disappointment is soon mitigated by the first Greek triumph of the games in the final event, the marathon. The opera ends with one of the marathon stragglers, wearing white gloves in honour of the Greek king, running into a silent and empty stadium, long after everyone has left. It was at these 1896 games that the marathon as a race was invented and named by De Coubertin at the behest of a French philologist - a baritone character in the opera - who had been inspired by Browning's poem, 'Pheidippides', about a legendary Greek messenger at the battle of Marathon.
Luca Belcastro (below), who bears a passing resemblance to a composer whose own 'running' song was banned in some quarters**, has also written music for texts from such diverse authors as Shakespeare, Lorca, Neruda and St. Augustine.
Laura Sheeran is an Irish musician, a singer and songwriter who will be releasing her new multimedia album, 'Spellbook', in 2015 on the Flaming June record label. She describes her music as 'gothic dream pop', and also performs as Glitterface in 'alien synth-pop act' Nanu Nanu, along with Marc Aubele.
Their album, 'Neptune', is also released this year, so look out for them on this summer's festival circuit, and their 'Live at Unit 1 Studios' video series highlights some of the best independent music coming out of Ireland......and maybe you've heard of Laura's famous cousin, Jenny Pasquill, who ran 20 marathons in 20 days in 2011, then an unofficial women's world record.
'Run' was written and arranged by Laura Sheeran
Vocals: Laura Sheeran, Linda Buckley
Cello: Kate Ellis
5-string violin, acoustic viola: Cora Venus Lunny
Processed strings: Marc Aubele
Maschine MK2 programming: Laura Sheeran
Mixed and mastered by Marc Aubele in at Unit 1 Studios, Dublin
© Laura Sheeran 2015
Cora Venus Lunny showreel
Alex Marker's Exmoor parkland set morphs into the bare trees and red rocks of the Rift Valley through lighting changes that see the sun burning away the mist, while the percussive rhythms of the runners' feet and their breathing is suggested by a score that connects a jazzy clarinet to African drums.
In an 2008 Observer magazine article about the traumatic experiences of Kenya's elite runners during the ethnic violence that year, Jean-Christophe Collin hailed the Rift valley as the birthplace of running: "It was along this immense gouge in the rock that men first stood upright and began to walk. And to run."
McGrath alludes to this broader context - as he runs, Nuru feels the valley's tremors, earth pangs that echo his own and recall the tectonic upheavals that had separated the homelands of these characters many millions of years before. This is running as connection or separation, as an escape from trauma or a striving towards healing, all the while looking forward but thinking back.
Some of the themes in this play are also addressed in 'Running the Rift', Naomi Benaron's harrowing but uplifting 2013 novel about Jean Patrick Nkuba, an Olympic hopeful in war-torn Rwanda who had been told as a boy that 'someday you will need to run as much as you need to breathe'.
And in 'Town of Runners', Jerry Rothwell's beautifully shot 2012 running documentary, most of the teenagers living a subsistence life around the small Ethiopian town of Bekoji get up before dawn - to run and train!
Here's a trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EaWYFaxErWk