Zen, and the art of opera detox

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an opera singer in possession of a bit of spare cash, must be in want of a motorcycle.” Jane Austen, petrolhead, 1813.

I love motorbikes. Always have.

However, like most seventeen-year-olds with terrified mothers, I wasn’t allowed to have one. A car was fine, even when driven with that exhilarating mix of youthful inexperience and ill-founded over-confidence that only a teenage boy can muster. But a motorbike? “Creation of the devil,” she would say. “One-way ticket to an early grave.”

This deep-seated loathing and general distrust of all things two-wheeled was founded, not entirely unreasonably, upon a bike accident that a distant cousin had suffered a few years previously. He nearly died, and suffered some quite horrible injuries, from all of which (other than the loss of some teeth) he even eventually recovered, I’m happy to say. But that was it for bikes, as far as my mum was concerned.

And she wasn’t wrong. I proceeded to have enough scrapes, bangs, and prangs in the family car over the next year that I’m lucky to be sitting here typing this today. If I’d been on a bike instead of in a car, I wouldn’t be.

It wasn’t until just a few weeks after my thirtieth birthday that I finally sat my motorcycle test. I would have done it sooner, but one of the unforeseen consequences of pursuing a career as an opera singer is the prohibitive insurance premium.

Insurance companies class opera singers as “entertainers”, which puts you in the same risk bracket as millionaire rockstars and professional footballers. They like to assume that all we “entertainers” hang out together, constantly riding around on the back of each other’s motorcycles. If you have an accident with a famous person on the back of your bike, it could cost the insurance company millions. So, to guard against this, they load the premiums.

I call this Pavarotti Syndrome, as I was once genuinely asked, when applying for bike insurance, if, as an opera singer, I knew the big man personally, and, if I did, would I be likely to give him a lift anywhere? Despite my pithy response about perpetual wheelies, they still quoted me an annual premium of nearly £2,000.

So it was that I simply couldn’t afford a bike until I turned thirty. Apparently it’s much safer to ride around with Pav on the back when you’ve entered your fourth decade.

Having been starved for so long, and having watched, green-eyed with envy, my best mate Leigh hooning around on his Honda as we rehearsed A Midsummer Night’s Dream together, I decided it was finally time.

I signed up to Ridesure Motorcycle Training at Dunsfold Aerodrome in Surrey (the home of BBC’s Top Gear), where I proceeded to fall off with great alacrity and abandon whilst Jeremy Clarkson was racing some hideously expensive supercar up and down the runway just a few metres away. (It was an SLR MacLaren, if you must know.) After five full days of incredibly patient tuition by Ridesure’s owner and general bike-Yoda, Trevor Wilbourn, I managed to pass my test first time. The very next day I bought my first bike.

Over the next few years, I confess, I went a wee bit bike nuts.

Desperate to sample all that the biking world had to offer, I bought four very different bikes in as many years. I signed up to a Police training course, then followed that up with an advanced motorcycling course.

I rode everywhere. Welsh National Opera tour, Glyndebourne festival, even commuting up to London to ENO and Covent Garden. In 2009, I bought a big Yamaha tourer to take with me to the Bregenz festival in Austria. Over the eleven-week period, I clocked up over 4,000 miles riding a succession of incredible alpine passes. I even rode from Bregenz to Bayreuth for a stage audition, as you can see from the picture above.

Fourteen months ago, I was forced to sell the big Yam to help pay a pretty hefty tax bill. I was awaiting payment for four completed contracts from four separate companies, all of whom decided to go on summer break without paying. Sadly such things are far from uncommon these days, but normally it’s only a single company defaulting that you have to weather at any given time. I was just particularly unlucky as things turned out, but I needed cash, so the bike had to go.

It’s fair to say I have since been pretty grumpy without a motorcycle in my life.

I’m very lucky. I have a good life. I have a gorgeous fiancée, a good job, a healthy family, money in the bank, a roof over my head, and food on the table. What the hell do I have to be grumpy about?

But that’s the thing about motorcycling. It has a pull, a magic that draws you in a way that other hobbies simply don’t. For many, that magic lies in the call of the open road, touring and camping, for others it’s in the intricate engineering, or the high performance. For some, it’s all about the polishing.

For me? It’s the peace. The calm. Yes, even the Zen.

Opera singers have busy brains. People think we just stand there and sing, but a singer’s mind is constantly multi-tasking. Words and music have to be remembered and reproduced. You’re thinking about technique. You’re watching the conductor. You’re acting and reacting to the stage drama around you. Checking that you’re well lit, or not blocking someone else’s light. Reacting quickly when something goes awry. A singer’s mind is constantly on the move.

Riding a motorcycle is also a busy mental pastime, no doubt. On advanced training courses they tell you to assume that every other road user is trying to kill you. Consequently, riding a motorcycle requires 100% of your concentration.

There’s a calm centre to that level of focus. You can’t think about anything other than riding. Everything else just melts away. Riding a motorcycle is the one time when I am completely free from the world of opera. For me, that is beyond price.

And for this reason and no other, after fourteen months, I’ve put a deposit down on a new machine.

I can’t wait.


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