In 2015 at the Salzberg Festival in Austria, Günther Groissböck starred in his first production of the Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier.
Playing the role of Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau, an outlandish nobleman who lusted after every woman in sight, landed Groissböck a cover shot on one of Germany’s most important opera news magazines.
But do you know what Groissböck, an Austrian bass who debuted in opera in 2002, remembers most about the photo shoot?
“Well, I told them my hobby is cycling, so the cover is me in cycling gear with my bike,” Groissböck says. “It was a bit weird, and it was an eye catcher because no one expects a guy with a Colnago bike and cycling dress on an opera magazine cover.”
Since then, Groissböck has played the role of Baron Ochs auf Lerchenau three more times during productions at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He sings around the world, and will star as King Heinrich in Richard Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Met at the end of this month.
Groissböck has yet to appear on another opera magazine cover in cycling kit, but the thought of appearing as an opera singer in a cycling magazine makes him undeniably giddy.
“It’s a huge advantage”
Groissböck grew up in Waidhofen an der Ybbs in Lower Austria. He began playing piano as a child and received vocal training at the University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna. All the while he was developing his craft on stage, he was also discovering a love for the bike. He participated in races as a junior and as an adult, he loved to participate in recreational events like L’Etape du Tour de France and the Marmotte Granfondo Alpes.
But Groissböck says he’s been too busy lately working to put in the time and effort required for big, multi-day or gran fondo-type rides; in fact, the last time he did one was around the time of his cover shoot, in 2015.
Nevertheless, he continues to ride his bike regularly, taking it with him to gigs in Salzberg, where there are rolling hills just outside the city, and also to New York, where he pedals around Central Park. Riding is equal parts mental and physical upkeep for Groissböck.
And although he’s not training for any cycling events right now, Groissböck says that riding is training — for work.
“I really try to stay with it because it helps with singing,” Groissböck says. “If you have long exhausting roles, and I have many of them, it’s a huge advantage.”
Last fall, Groissböck spent nearly two months in New York City, where he was starring in the Met’s production of Don Carlo (he played King Philip II, “a dream role for a bassist,” he says).
He of course had a bike with him, and he logged hundreds of miles around Manhattan’s Central Park. Although he knows that doing laps around the park “sounds monotone,” Groissböck has developed a special affinity for the 10 kilometer loop — and, how it can satiate a bit of his competitive edge.
“It’s not flat, and there are some little hills,” he says. “One lap is a bit more than 10k and you have more than 100m per lap. The thing is, you have lots of guys with electric bikes and there is always somebody who overtakes you or wants you to overtake and if you have a competitive character you can always have a sort of competition every day.”
During his last stint in NYC, Groissböck once did 10 laps in the park, which equates to just over 100k and more than 1000m.
What’s more relevant to opera singing than having a fish measuring contest with fellow cyclists in the park however, is the fact that Groissböck is making huge gains for his work when he rides.
Opera singing is an equation consisting of “brain and soul and passion and that’s one part,” he says. “But the physical part and a good working and healthy body is absolutely important, too.”
Most of the time, Groissböck stars in operas from the “heavy, hardcore German or Italian repertoire.” They’re long and hard performances, “like a mountain stage in the Tour de France,” he says.
“So it’s important to be physically strong. But, to be really in shape in terms of the oxygen and lung volume, that’s a big advantage. The fitter you are, the more you benefit in terms of singing.
“For me, I’m a very physical person in terms of singing. Just to know you can rely on your body, you have these extra liters of oxygen is a good feeling. It’s a bit like a car with an engine where you know you have one extra gear.”
Warm-up, detox, and the rides in between
Although Groissböck’s ability to ride bikes during a show run is dictated by the frequency of performances, he tends to follow a pretty consistent rhythm around riding. He’s developed a loose schedule that includes a day-of-show warm-up ride, a day-after detox ride, and “then the days in between if there is a ride, these are most of the time training rides where you focus on at least keeping your shape or increasing your performance.”
Opera singer, yes. Fanatical cyclist, also yes.
On the day of an opera, Groissböck has to be careful to get the warm-up he needs without overdoing it. While it’s very important to “warm up the machine and start the engine,” he says, “you have to be careful in terms of length and intensity. The vocal cords could get dry if you’re breathing fast and intense over hours.
“It’s just important for me to ramp up the heart rate to get the whole engine started to expand the lungs and also to feel the diaphragm and feel the instrument running.”
The day after a show, Groissböck also rides with intention — ”to get rid of all the adrenaline and stress hormones that build up during a show,” he says.
As any cyclist knows, the physical experience of riding is matched — enhanced, really — by what goes on in the mind. For Groissböck, the mental exercises related to opera singing that he experiences while riding a bike are as important as the physical fine-tuning.
For one, the mental stimulation of riding can help the body learn a role.
“Let’s say you have a very long climb, one of these alpine passes,” Groissböck says. “And you have to get in a rhythm otherwise it’s endless or tough. Learning roles, it’s like a mantra or a prayer. Some things can only be learned in a superficial way, say only in the brain. But while you’re riding and you repeat it you can really get it in your body.”
Memorization, too, is aided by the repetitiveness of a climbing rhythm.
Although there is a lot of specificity in how riding bikes benefits Groissböck as an opera singer — opening his diaphragm, increasing his lung capacity, helping him absorb a role — he’s also no different than any of us when we go out for a ride, thinking about work.
“It’s an exchange of negative things and the gain of new input,” he says. “It’s one of the major positive things about riding or endurance sports in general. It’s incredible how you digest your problems on the one hand. On the other hand what creative thoughts come to your mind. I think it’s one of the most fertile moments that I always have. On the one hand it clears and on the other hand it immediately enriches.