Classical Fuel for Your Cardio Fire

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(Editor's Note: Following the opening night of Carmen on Saturday, July 2nd, Keith Miller withdrew from the production for health reasons. In his place, Aleksey Bogdanov will perform the role July 9 and 11, with Michael Todd Simpson stepping in as Escamillo beginning July 15.)

When Carmen opens at the Glimmerglass Festival this weekend, audiences will see buff bass-baritone Keith Miller in a heightened capacity. He’s performed Bizet’s opera at the Met (and appears on the Live in HD DVD) as Zuniga but in Cooperstown he steps into the shoes of toreador Escamillo.

A sonorous timbre aside, Miller has also made headlines for his previous career—that as a pro fullback who played for five seasons. Miller brings an athlete’s sensibility to his newfound career, amplifying that cause with Puissance Training, a fitness program designed specifically for opera singers and their strength and workout needs.

For Miller, the integration of music and fitness is tantamount to his program. In an interview last year, he described preparing for the physically demanding role of Astarotte Mary Zimmerman’s production of Armida by alternating sprints with lines of recitative in an empty rehearsal room at the Met. 

It was around that time that I started to think about incorporating classical music into my workout routines, dominated as many peoples’ regimens are, by cardio and running. Monthly articles pepper fitness magazines about workout playlists, iTunes has teamed up with Nike to offer curated collections for optimal performance. The New York Times pointed out in 2008 that there’s a reason for the obsession with workout playlists, indicating studies which prove that listening to music boosts endurance and distracts from fatigue and tedium (especially if, like me, you run on a treadmill). And while the popular chestnut is to find songs with a BPM (beats per minute) that match your heart rate during a workout, experts also believe that the constant time signatures and pulsating energy of club tracks make the ideal workout companion.

I’m willing to bet, however, that for many reading this blog, that's not the greatest motivator (though, to be fair, it's certainly one that works for me from time to time). Miller pumped up for football games by listening to the Queen of the Night's arias from Die Zauberflöte. My yoga instructor plays Stile Antico and Mozart adagios in his classes, rather than may of the traditional Eastern music you hear in the studio. Bach and his repetitions that never feel repetitive is especially great for reminding yogis that, no matter how many times you do the same vinyasa in a class, it should always be a fresh experience.  Even cardio, a form of exercise often dominated in gyms by techno beats, can live harmoniously with a more WQXR type of listening genre.

“I actually don’t think I listen to anything but classical when I run,” says Albert Imperato, the managing director for classical PR and marketing firm 21C Media Group and a blogger for Gramophone, Playbill Arts and the Huffington Post. Opera isn’t as prominent on Imperato’s workout playlist, but he is a huge fan of running to symphonies, whose movements and (yes) varying tempi mirror the structure of a typical run. Motivation aside, Imperato also takes this time to discover new repertoire. “Listening while I’m running is some of the most focused attention I can give. You can’t e-mail, you can’t have all these distractions,” he says, before drily adding, “You don’t want to run into a car of course.”

On the other hand, I listen almost exclusively to opera when I key up my classical runs and, for me, I prefer to hear things that I’ve listened to over and over. While Imperato has a playlist on his blog, I’m offering selections from mine below (an ever-expanding list, it currently clocks in at about two hours). Before we dive in, I’d also love to know: What do you listen to when you work out? Leave your playlists in the comments below.

Vigorous Verdi

“Si, vendetta, tremenda vendetta” from Rigoletto was the first track that actually made opera and running click for me. Listen for the orchestral accompaniment as Gilda enters this duet and you can hear a steady stream of trios, especially in the Robert Merrill and Roberta Peters recording conducted by Jonel Perlea. It’s great for a light jog or brisk sprint. I’m also a fan of the Anvil Chorus from Trovatore, both for strength training and the elliptical; as by design it marks a rigidly constant time.

Completing the familiar Rig-Trov-Trav triangle is the opening for Act II’s second scene in La Traviata, which I usually let play from “Avrem lieta di maschere la note” through “Di Madride noi siam mattadori.” The Anna Netrebko and Rolando Villazón live recording from Salzburg is perhaps my favorite for purposes of working out as you hear the chorus and principles going about their stage business as well, which for me helps even more to keep my feet moving. (And it’s one of the best Flora party scenes you’ll hear on recording.)

Rhythmic Rossini

There’s certainly no lack of high-octane music in Rossini’s canon. “Mi par d’esser con la testa,” the Act I closer in Il Barbiere di Siviglia, like Trovatore’s Anvil Chorus, has a constant percussive pulse to keep the sextet on its frenetic track. I’m a particular fan of the energy on the Bartoli, Nucci and Banditelli recording. For a finish line just prior to that blissful moment when the treadmill reaches “Cool Down,” I scroll to the finale of Armida, full of tumultuous coloratura and enough fury to expel that last reserve of energy. And with Joyce DiDonato’s winning recording on her Rossini recital disc, those last few minutes go by in a blissful breeze.

Offenbach and Operetta

It’s impossible not to think of Offenbach when you think of energetic, bawdy musical numbers. Beyond the famous Galop Infernal in Orphée aux Enfers (coupled with another fantastic chorus in that work, “Gloire au Jupiter”), there are drunken choruses galore in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. I like to cut out the Kleinzach aria and go straight from “Drig, drig” to “Peuh! Cette biere est detestable” to get the reprise of the chorus in praise of barkeep Luther. A lesser-known Offenbach gem is La belle Hélène, whose Act I finale, “Les dieux décrètent par ma voix…Pars pour la Crête” is another classic ensemble number.

Operetta offers a wide variety of riches for fast-paced and catchy numbers perfect for the running zone. Act II of Léhar’s The Merry Widow has a balalaika-tinged dance that alternates fast and slow as well as the boisterous male ensemble number, “Wie die Weiber Man Behandelt” (aka, “Girls, Girls, Girls”). “Heia, Heia” from Emmerich Kalman’s Die Csárdásfürstin has a majestic beginning but picks up to a jogging pace that makes for a seamless transition out of your warm-up.


Top-Flight Tchaikovsky

I once asked a Russian friend, while racing behind her to keep up as we headed down a street in Moscow, why she walked so quickly. “To keep warm,” was her simple reply. I like to think there’s a similar thinking behind the fast and lively tempi of many Tchaikovsky works, that the composer was thinking in part of keeping his singers and dancers warm onstage in drafty Russian theatres. Whatever the reason, he's unsurprisingly a constant presence on my playlist.

On the nonvocal end, the Dance of the Tumblers from The Snow Maiden is perfect when I kick the treadmill into high gear. Alternating walking with running, I turn to the peasant’s chorus from Eugene Onegin (“Bolyat moyi skori nozhenski so pokhodushki,” aptly enough, translates into “My feet are sore”), and for slower runs the final act of Pique Dame yields two great tracks in “Budem pit I veselitsya” and “Tak v nenastnye dni.”

Mozart and More

At his briskest, Mozart alone can fuel a 30-minute workout. I used to get a lot of play out of The Abduction from the Seraglio, but lately have been especially entranced by Don Giovanni’s male arias and duets, namely “Finch’han dal vino,” (especially the on the flooring new arias disc from Peter Mattei), the Catalogue Aria and Act II’s opening duet, “Eh via, Buffone.” The strength behind “Gira la cote! Gira!” in Puccini’s Turandot is, like Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, ideal for endurance. And another recent favorite of mine has been “Tempus est iocundum” from Orff’s Carmina Burana. The latter is not an opera, of course, but nevertheless it's a definite motivator.