A Cycling Tenor: Why David Corcoran Rides
David Corcoran – Why RIDE #54
Who says the arts and sport don’t mix? Surely that’s just a myth. Opera Australia’s principal tenor has recently discovered the joy of cycling and all its related benefits. He insists he’s not an advocate – nor a sportsman anymore – but he’s become one by default. In RIDE #54, David Corcoran explains how cycling has become a part of his life. Here is a full transcript of the interview for the story.
Interview by Rob Arnold
Photos: Courtesy Opera Australia
“I’ve lost about 16kg from cycling. I’m about 80kg now and I used to be 96. Most opera singers are large. That’s sort of a given. We’re all either big boned or high cheek bones… or just larger.”
Is it necessary to be large to get the voice?
“No. It’s all about the vocal instrument but sometimes it’s paired. Pavarotti wasn’t the great singer he was because he was the size he was. He didn’t always look that size – in his early life he was quite a trim man but, in a sense, he had an eating disorder.
“It’s part of the lifestyle and that’s probably the point of now, as singers in the 21st century, for me now I don’t go home and eat a bowl of pasta. It’s like thinking of yourself as a road cycling athlete in a sense. I’ve monitored my food over the last 18 months, so that I’m not eating… and especially when we finish here, it’s tempting to have a few beverages after a show. You go home. You’re hungry. You have a sandwich. You put all that food in your stomach, and then you set on it. And if you’re not actually exercising… Prior to me taking up cycling, I really wouldn’t have exercised much. Maybe a bit of yoga or some gym work. But I basically started to decide to commute to work; from Manly, originally, to the city or to our office in Surry Hills. I think first the time I did it, it took about 55 minutes.
“This was my introduction to riding… being passed by flat-bar roadies and road cyclists in all the gear which was, in some ways, inspiring and, in other ways, demoralising. I still have the bike. I use it as my workhorse type of run-around commuter bike. It had big tyres and heavy rims. Everything was heavy on the bike because it wasn’t made for fast riding. But slowly I brought my times down. So in conjunction with diet, the cycling was an imperative. I lost the first 8kg or so just on diet – predominantly on the CSIRO diet – not an advertisement for it, it just happened to work. It’s high in protein, not diminishing carbohydrates but certainly lowering them. Still with dairy. Still with snacks. Still with balanced meals. So what it was about for me in those first few months was changing the behaviours. And learning that what you eat – and at what time of day – was quite critical to how we could lose weight. My wife and I did it together, so we both lost kilo’s on the diet.
Was this a health initiative?
“No it was just the new year (2009). We thought, let’s try it. We just had the birth of our son. It was just a decision that we came to. We had heard a lot of good things about that particular diet and we thought the idea behind it was sound, so we thought we’d give it go. I had been heavily into yoga up until that point, and I wasn’t shifting any weight from it. I didn’t feel particularly heavy, but I had a bike sitting on the balcony which had rusted. All the screws and the chain and all the bits and pieces had basically sat there since I arrived in Sydney six years ago… I moved up [from Melbourne] and didn’t have a car and I brought a bike with me and thinking I would ride all over Sydney. I rode it twice, and then left it to sit on the porch.
“As student I thought what better way to get around than on a bike. I had panniers, and I had the bags and a rack, the whole lot… and then I didn’t use it. I let it rust. Four or five years later, I thought maybe I could pick it up again, as a challenge to myself just to see if I could do it. I turned out to be a great way to save money, a great way to start to get fit. And to have challenges. As I said 55 maybe even an hour and five minutes, I can’t really remember. But slowly it dropped to 55, to 47, to 45. Then I upgraded components and starting to read and understand what road cycling is all about. And, of course, feeling good about cycling. That’s really the important thing. I wouldn’t continue to do it now if it wasn’t something that gave me absolute joy and pleasure. I didn’t do a lot of riding as a kid. Typically people say I’ve been riding since I could walk. I hate those sorts of labels, only because a lot of singers use them; ‘Oh, I’ve been singing since I was 10.’ Well, you weren’t an opera singer at the age of 10. Come on! I didn’t start singing until I was 23… At school, we would have the outdoor activities programs and I would take cycling as a choice and we would do a five-day cycling tour around Victoria. I did two of those. I led a tour.”
I wouldn’t continue to do it now if it wasn’t something that gave me absolute joy and pleasure.
“I grew up in suburban eastern Melbourne. We had a caravan park in Rosebud, fairly typical. We had BMX bikes there and I still have a Giant mountain bike that I had when I was 15. Before I left Melbourne, I was riding to work on it. I was living in Kew and was riding around all the Yarra boulevard area. I was doing a lot of riding after work or just getting out but never was cycling like it is for me now; I’m really quite an avid cyclist – obsessed about it! I have four bikes now, my wife has two, my son has a little balance bike that he’s learning on. Cycling is now such an important part of my health. And now it’s at the point where I can inspire other people to take up cycling.
“It’s important that people feel empowered by their cycling. You don’t want to push somebody into the sort of bike you don’t think they’re actually going to ride. But I developed that taste for it. When I bought my first road bike, I walked into the shop: ‘What have you got?’ I’d never been on a road bike. I’d never had drop bars in my arsenal. So I took one for a test ride and initially was a bit wobbly and thought, ‘Would I even be able to ride this?’ But I rode the EMC (an entry level Etape 2.6 that I’ve still got) and I just thought, ‘Wow. This is so much faster!’ Initially, that was the biggest thing. I had a few goes on the different part of the drops, and I thought okay, I think I can manage this. I didn’t have toe clips, just normal pedals for the test ride. But the rate of movement is one thing that struck me. I thought at least if I go entry-level, I’ll see if I like it. And then if I don’t like it, I haven’t spent $4,000 on a carbon-fibre framed road bike. And neither could I afford that. So yeah, I saved up, bought that bike, and I haven’t really looked back.
“At the start of 2011 I had 2,011km on the bike.”
Are you still more or less commuting, or do you find yourself doing rides with your little boy?
“We have a carriage that we can pull him on either of our bikes. So we take him to the park a lot in Pyrmont or wherever. We now live in town. We moved here at the in July last year. So we’ve been just over a year in the city. Up until that time, I was getting from Manly up to Warriewood, Church Point, Akuna Bay, starting to do all those big rides that people do…”
Fully lycra’d up?
“Oh yeah. I’ve got all that stuff now. It started with me buying stuff at the bottom end. I’ve never been a big believer in copying my favourite Tour de France riders, because I don’t know enough about the Tour de France as yet. This year I got into it of course, with Cadel, but it was really only the final stages that I showed an interest because I really don’t understand a lot of the tactics of the teams. People get your magazine about the Tour de France, start reading about it, and studying it, maybe not sitting up every night because I work late, but then there’s probably times when I come home and I’m having that protein snack, I can pop it on for half an hour, watch a bit, and then go to bed. It’s inspiring to see that these guys ride. Really, as athletes, it’s considered the pinnacle of sport.
“Recently I was in Victoria, and we went to Cadel’s Australian hometown in Barwon Heads. We went down for coffee and it was funny, the whole town had put up hand-written signage. Go Cadel! Yay for Cadel! This was after he’d won. It was quite funny.
“I don’t have branded lycra. I have matched the colour of the lycra to my bike. So I’m slightly crazy and obsessed in that sense. For me it’s about being a road cyclist and matching the gear with all the guys that do it, but not necessarily spending hundreds of dollars on each item. I have winter gear and summer gear. I’ve had road shoes since day one on the road bike, no problems. I’ve fallen off maybe three times when I’ve forgotten to click out, looking like nuff-nuff.
“Most of my riding I do by myself, predominantly because I’m not interested in that kind of gung-ho macho road mentality that some of the clubs may have. I haven’t experienced it all first hand, but I seen a lot. I’m not a competitive person. I’ve often chosen sports in my adult life that aren’t competitive. Aikido. Tae Kwon Do. I know Tae Kwon Do is a sport, but I shied away from fighting. And Aikido is another martial art is absolutely about meditation and using fluid motion as a way of self defence more than offense. But I do ride with guys when I can. I like to be able to choose the people I ride with. Or if someone says, ‘Hey let’s go for a ride’, I’ll go with them. But as a regular 6.30am Thursday mornings, I can’t do that… I have a young son, and also because of working late. I generally avoid anything that I have to commit because our schedules here at the opera.”
How often do you perform?
“That varies too. There are only four performances of the opera that I’m currently in. And I haven’t performed in an opera at night since I last did a show Of Mice and Men that finished in mid-August. It’s an adaptation of the Steinbeck novel, written by Carlisle Floyd. It was an Australian premier that we just did. I had a smallish role that I’d taken on short notice. It was the role of Carlson, who kills the dog. And so, we had a dog on stage, and we’d take out the back. And there was a shot sound, and all that sort of stuff for effect. On that topic, on days where I have a show, I choose not to go for an 80km bike ride. Because often singing in an opera in a lead role feels like an 80km bike ride when you’ve finished.
When you’re riding, are you working on core strength stuff that’s going to help you with your vocals?
“Yes, absolutely. Especially on the road bike, it’s about keeping my lower back open in the seated position. Moving, like anyone would. I don’t get too rigid and stiff. Keeping loose and relaxed in here, breathing into the diaphragm. It’s basically proper cycling technique, which actually mirrors proper singing technique to a point. The physiology of the two is quite similar. What I have to be careful of with early mornings is if it’s cold and I breathe in through my mouth too much cold air you can sort of dry out your oesophagus. And that can leave you feeling raspy. If you then go into sing, because you’re going through the same mechanism, then you’ve already exerted your self too much. So I choose warmer times of the day, or I choose match a ride that’s going to match what I’m doing in the day. So if I have a day off or an afternoon off, and I don’t have a show until the following two days or whatever, yeah I can go for 80km, 100km and get out. It might just be 2:00 in the afternoon, and I’ll go out for three hours. Rather than at 6:30 in the morning when it’s perhaps a better time for riding.
…breathing into the diaphragm. It’s basically proper cycling technique, which actually mirrors proper singing technique to a point. The physiology of the two is quite similar.
What about this time of year when it’s pollen-rich and allergies are affecting people?
“When I lived in Melbourne, I used to suffer from terrible hay-fever. Up here in Sydney, I haven’t suffered as much. But if I’m out on a ride – say doing some laps of Centennial Park, which I’ll often do; five laps then head over to the Opera Centre in Surry Hills as sort of a pre-work training – I always take the water for that reason. I’m always sipping water to keep lubricated, to keep fresh in the throat. There’s been a couple times when I’ve breathed in something… cough and sputter on the bike, stop, have a drink, and breathe through my nose. Obviously if you’re working hard, you’re not going to be able to do that. But if I’m not working as hard, I’ll take a break, breathe through the nose, get through the pollen area, maybe just disappear from that part of the road or leave the park if it’s a bad day.”
Do you generally sing in Australia or do you go abroad as well?
“At the moment, I’m full time with the opera company. I have been for five years now. We toured to Edinburgh last year with Bliss which is a modern piece written by Brett Dean which was premiered at the Edinburgh Festival, not the Fringe but the one after – the actual festival. I’ve done a few study trips, but haven’t sung professionally overseas as yet. But that’s certainly on the horizon at some point in the future.
“This year alone I’ve done 14 performances of Lieutenant Pinkerton in Madame Butterfly and five performances of Rudolfo in La Bohème (which are two major operatic works in the repertoire), the Australian premier of Of Mice and Men as Carlson, now Sydney’s premier of For The Love Of The Nightingale where I do the three roles of Captain, Hippolytus (above) and Narrator – it’s one role broken up into three parts.
“Later in the year I’m covering Alfredo in La Traviata by Verdi which is a major part of operatic repertoire. This is my first year as a full-time principal. The last two years I’ve spent as a young artist in the young artists program which is a particular program that combines study and on-stage experience, and the prior to that I was working full time in the chorus. So I’ve probably done 1,000 performances on the stage at the Opera House in some fashion, whether as a chorister, a young artist or now as a principal. Last year I did the Duke in Rigoletto which is another Verdi piece which is another major role, so in anyone’s career you’re probably going to have your top ten roles that you’d like to do in your life, and I’ve been fortunate to cover three or four of those, either to cover or to do some performances.”
Do you feel like you get home from those and do a victory salute and or how does a good opera end for you?
“It’s the satisfaction… it’s akin to that feeling when you’ve ridden for 100k’s, you get off the bike, you have a shower, and then you feel light. You feel buoyant. You feel invigorated. That’s generally how I feel. If you’ve hit all the notes, and you’ve sung well, and you’ve acted, and you haven’t mucked up… you know, where the prop needs to be at that point… and the show hasn’t fallen apart, and the audience has clapped a lot, then it’s a good night.
“I mean there’s been some nights when I’ve sung that aria in Rigoletto and I’ve hit the high note and done all the acting, and there’s been silence in the auditorium. Because you normally wait, the conductor will kind of wait and listen and continue on, and you think to yourself, ‘Wow, they didn’t clap.’ And that’s all you can think about when you go home. They might have clapped at the end, but they didn’t clap at that moment.
Is it generally considered appropriate to clap at that time?
“I would have been. The four other shows I did, they clapped. But that one show, for whatever reason, they didn’t. And so, things like that can effect how you feel after a performance. But generally, if you’ve done all the right things, it feels good, you might stay here and have a mineral water or a beer or something and then calm down a little bit. It does take a little bit of time to come off. I imagine it would be like winning a stage in the Tour de France. Where you must be on such a cloud, but then you also know you’ve got to back it the following day, or two days later or whatever. I’ve often said to people that our job as opera singers is a lifestyle job. And that’s why I say it’s important because I can’t commit to groups or to cycling clubs or even guys that are going out for regular rides. I can’t commit to that stuff because any week is going to be a bit different. In saying that, it’s easy to with the job that I have to incorporate cycling into my life. That’s been the actual enjoyment of it all is finding those opportunities to be active and to incorporate exercise (and I choose cycling) into my life. So I ride to work all the time. I haven’t bought a public transport ticket all year.
And you have a car?
“We have a car, but we’ve only put about 1,000km on the car in the last 12 months, since moving to the city. Prior to that, because we were commuting and our son’s day-care was in the city, we had to do a lot of driving. There were times when I would ride to work and my wife would drive in. I still found time to ride, but generally driving was a bigger thing.
“Living in the city, driving is almost negligible. I found ways to do my shopping by bike, where I’ll use the baby carrier (the trailer/chariot thing) and ride to Pyrmont Coles and park it out the front. My wife was away on tour recently for three months, so I was a single/solo dad for that time, and so I’d drop him off at day-care, and if I had the morning off I’d go and do the groceries, on the bike riding down the cycle-ways over the Pyrmont Bridge, park it out the front, put all the green bags into the chariot and ride home. Fantastic. We’ve got a car lift where we live, so I can get in and out, park the bike, we’ve got storage so I can have all of our bikes out of the house. I’m obviously privileged to live in the city, and that sort of a big benefit.”
A lot of people would see living in this city as a detriment to their cycling. You’ve chosen a metropolitan-living career really. You have to live in a city. And of all the cities I’ve been to, Sydney is one of the most unfriendly in terms of cycling. But it’s changing. And you’re experiencing that.
“I’m 32. And I think also if I can implement cycling into my life now, by the time I’m 40, 50… 60, if I can keep with cycling, even if it’s not as gung-ho as it is now, the benefits, the long-term benefits on my heart, on my body, on my ability to perform, on my voice, the whole package of me as a person should hopefully remain healthy. Obviously if I don’t get into a mess where I have a bike accident, and that’s probably the one worry that any cyclist would have. I’ve covered my bikes in reflective tape for my commutes. I’ve got plenty of lights. I’ve got the stickers on my helmet. I do what can be done to be visible. I also choose times of the day where I know I’ll be perhaps a bit safer.
“Sydney is changing, with the cycle-ways. I’m a big advocate for the benefit of them, and I know there’s a lot of angst about it, but… my cause is not environmental. My cause is not about advocacy. I’m not chanting the environmental bit, but you can’t ignore any of those things either. If one wants to be healthy, if one perhaps wants to be more environmental, you can find ways to do that. Cycling is a great way to do that. I think it’s important to make some of those choices.
“I’m not preaching to anyone that cycling is the only way. But I lead by example. By clocking up the k’s, and participating, and doing what I can.”
It’s a pleasure to be able hear someone speak so passionately about cycling. Cycling tends to attract people who inevitably get passionate about it. Some of our readers may have started watching the Tour de France because of the mountains, and then they start to learn the personalities, then they might get a bike, or they might not…
“I have colleagues who come to me a say, ‘Oh you must be watching the Tour de France, isn’t it exciting?’ And I’m saying, ‘No, I’m actually not.’ But there’s one particular lady who is not a cyclist but said she watches it every year. She showed me your magazine, she said, ‘I’ve got the guide here, I’m excited’. She was going to read it during rehearsal where she had some time off. So she studies it, and she records all the broadcasts, and then watches them when she can (as she also works late with long hours), and I was quite chuffed to see that. This is not somebody that I regularly talk to, but to know that about her was quite an interesting thing. So as you say, people come to cycling from all different angles, which is really great. And I’ve been fortunate enough now to see a couple of people that I’ve inspired to buy a bike.
“We all obsess about different things, but it’s also a hobby. My wife has hobbies. I have hobbies. They keep us healthy, I think. And I think that is really an important part of being active.”
And when you were 96kg, did you feel like you were going for the century?
“My heaviest weight was at 19. I was a rower at school. We never had cycling as a school sport, so rowing was my big thing. And we would do cycling as training which was great. I used to love it. But I was 79kg when I was 17, by 19 I was 105kg for the Tae Kwon Do because I went up to heavy weight. Rather than losing weight and keeping weight off, I just though well… At that stage I probably had chunked up to about the 96kg mark. Instead of losing 6kg and being under 90kg, I thought just eat more and go into the heavy weight. And that got embarrassing, because who wants to be 105kg? That for someone who is six-foot tall it is not a healthy way to be. And of course you see it around you gut. You see it sort of everywhere. But by the time I moved to Sydney at 25, I was probably around that 95kg, and I think I dropped a little bit because I moved up here with two bags of clothes, knew no one, and kind of was living a student lifestyle again, having worked full-time – I had a mild career in business psychology at Coles Meyer. And then met my wife, and you know, get into a routine with your partner and eating together. So yeah, teetered around that 96kg mark.
“But with our wardrobe department here, they take measurements. I was obviously shrunk down. 85kg is where I was, and I’ve slowly shifted down to 80, 81kg. Depends on my fluid intake. If I go for a long rode I’ll come in and weigh in the low 80s. But basically they measure everything: they took arms, legs, girth, chest, because they obviously make everything for us to fit. All the costumes I’ve tried on in the last few months have all been too big. So they thought, let’s redo your measurements. So at my heaviest, I was 104cm around my stomach, I’m now 87cm. And the measurements across chest, arms, around my knees, around my calfs, ankles, wrists are all smaller. And that’s kind of the funny thing. Losing the weight has just been a consequence of enjoying cycling. So it hasn’t been a goal to go and lose 16kg. I’m at a great mass here for my height. I’m not going to be too persistent about it.
“There is a risk that if you’re too thin on stage, you can look gaunt. And you’re too lean. We’re a big opera house. It’s not TV. This is about a big stage, a big auditorium. And there are some singers who have lost weight dramatically, through various means, and they lose the shine off their voice. So you have to be really careful about how you lose weight. I think when you lose it slowly and you change your behaviour in your mind through your eating and through your habits, and you’re desire to be active, then it’s a slower process. It’s been a slower process. It’s been 18 months. Somebody told me once, the amount of time it took you to put on the weight, you have to allow as much time to take the weight off. And there’s also the danger where you get it off quickly, and then you put it back on. That’s where I say I’m not obsessed about my weight, but I am aiming to maintain this lower weight by keeping up this lifestyle, which incorporates cycling.”
How do you get into being an opera singer?
“My story is kind of weird and unique. I don’t know if whether you’ll like it for the magazine or not, but here it is. I played trumpet a school. I was vice-captain of music. I played four musicals; three as a trumpeter and one on the stage. But we didn’t have a voice teacher at school. No one who said, ‘You’ve got a voice, go off and do a bachelor of music.’ So I left Year 12 and I studied psychology at Deakin University. I didn’t do any music for five years. I went to a clairvoyant on my 23rd birthday. I worked for Coles Myer at the time, and all the girls in the office were going to clairvoyants. I went to a clairvoyant. The first thing she said to me was, ‘Have you ever wanted to sing? Using your voice? Radio or acting or that sort of thing.’
“I said, ‘No, not really.’
“She said, ‘You should, because you’d be good at it.’ She told me that I would possibly travel a lot with my work and that I would work a lot in Italy and France. The Italy and France thing remains to be seen, but I have travelled a lot so far in Australia. I thought basically, well let’s go and see if she’s right.”
Were you a cynic?
“Yeah, yeah, I was a cynic. I only went along because it was a bit of fun. But I then thought it would be interesting to see if this is true. So I found the name of a singing teacher, went for my first singing lesson, the singing teacher nearly fell off his chair with excitement. Basically for two years, I worked full-time and I studied privately with this singing teacher. He had always maintained that he thought I could be a professional singer. He invested a lot of interest in me. His name is John Lander, he’s still around and teaching singing in Melbourne. So he was instrumental in allowing me to find this passion, which then was a passion like cycling is now.
“Singing was a passion. I worked full-time and I sang. And I was in amateur musicals in and around Victoria. Two years in and I get into the Sydney conservatorium, in the opera school that they have. It’s a three-year program that you can do, generally as a post-graduate but it was done on an audition basis. They liked my talent. They said, ‘You’ve got a place in the school, as a tenor.’
“Tenors are a rare voice type. They’re definitely harder to find. I thought well this give me a good chance to give me to see if I really like the idea of being an opera singer. It’s a three-year degree. Two years in, I auditioned here for Opera Australia, for a summer job in one of the operas they were doing and got into that, instantly. Within a few months, was then offered a full-time two-year contract in the chorus. So that’s how it really happened for me.
“I was studying at uni, we were learning languages, having voice lessons, and acting, movement, yoga, putting on a production each year. And then auditioned, and got plucked out, as such, into the full-time chorus. And then from there is really where my proper training has begun. So it’s been like a work-experience, an apprenticeship on the job where slowly over time, you keep having lessons. I paid a lot of money to have lessons. I was then obviously working full-time and earning money from this profession. And have been fortunate enough, blessed enough, and I’m thankful that I’ve been able to move up through the ranks of Opera Australia. From the chorus, into doing a two-year tour of Madame Butterfly all around Australia. And then the young artists program and now as a full-time principle artist.
“This is my vocation, not just my occupation. I’m never going to be a professional road cyclist. I think I’ve missed the boat there. But now I can actually, hopefully at some point use my name as an opera singer and my developing name as an artist to influence the cycling side.”
By Rob Arnold (email@example.com)