There’s a lot more energy in opera singer Marilyn Arsenault’s voice this spring. There’s also a lot more spring in her step.
A former varsity runner for the University of Victoria, Arsenault is in a year of transition after a sixth place finish at the Canadian cross-country championships in Guelph last summer. Since then there were the trips to Italy, Spain and Florida. There was the studying, working, and singing performances in Pacific Opera Victoria’s The Magic Flute and the December production of Handel’s Messiah.
For the most part, she said, the chaotic pace is manageable. However, in April last year, an exhausted Arsenault took the stage at the Royal Theatre for rehearsal. Preparing for her role as Papagena in The Magic Flue, the Saanich resident was, “jet-lagged and completely fried out.”
She had just returned on a transatlantic flight home from Africa. But Arsenault wasn’t just wiped from the flight.
She was in Amman, Jordan, that week running with the Canadian team at the 2009 International Association of Athletics Federations World Cross Country Championships. Her results?
“Not so hot. Too many competitions, too much training and travelling,” said the 42-year-old who’s singing her way to a masters degree at the University of Victoria while working part time in the school’s political science department.
“By that point I’d exhausted my stores.”
Not that she’s slowing down this year. In fact, Arsenault’s main focus these days is to speed things up.
“At 42, I’m getting to the end of my window for speed improvement. My ultimate goal is to maximize my speed to help my performance once I move to longer distances.”
Her plan includes graduating from middle distance running to longer distances (half and full marathons) after one more summer spent trimming her race times. To do so, she’ll be one of many local competitors signed up for the 5,000 m events in the brand new Victoria Track Series, set to run Saturday nights at Oak Bay High.
“Eventually I will run a marathon but I wanted to get a little faster in the shorter distances. As you age, it’s harder to nail faster times so I’m trying to get those out of the way — particularly at the 5 and 10 km levels.”
Arsenault’s second life as an elite runner picked up pace when she and husband Giuseppe (Joey) Pietraroia relocated to Saanich six years ago. Holding down a career as a professional singer, Arsenault and Pietraroia uprooted from Montreal when he earned the conductor in residence position with the Pacific Opera Company (Pietraroia’s currently working on this summer’s mega-chorus production of Carmina Burana). When they got here, Arsenault joined a running club to meet people and regularize her workouts. That led to races, which led to more training and, in 2008, she made a major commitment to her running career by joining coach Jon Brown’s training regimen.
“She was already competing well at the provincial level and made the jump to the national and international levels quickly,” said Brown, a two-time Olympic marathon runner. He also added that while Arsenault has those physiological requirements of a good distance runner it’s her determination and strong self-belief that sets her apart.
She is also extremely robust and is able to train hard without risk of injury, adds Brown.
He said the qualities that made Arsenault a successful singer cross over to distance running: patience and long hours of training.
“I guess my breathing muscles are developed from singing, and using core muscles from singing, my awareness of my core and breathing might be a lot higher than someone who doesn’t think about that.”
Of course, it helps having a pair of cavernous lung chambers, whether its using them to fill an 800 seat auditorium with a high C or replenishing your body’s oxygen supply while treading along the trails of Gowlland Tod Provincial Park.
For more on the Victoria Track Series visit www.trackseries.ca.
n Originally from North Bay and Timmins, Ont. running was on the back burner for the opera singer until she arrived in Victoria.
n Her first performance as a teenager was the lead in Bye Bye Birdie.
n Following her undergrad in soprano vocals at McGill University, Arsenault worked full time as a professional singer for two years in Montreal.
Singing, breathing, running:
“I’m not sure if a runner develops the breathing anyways, but my breathing from singing certainly benefits my running,” Arseanault said.
One key is keeping a certain order for running and singing. “I can perform and run after, but not the other way around. I certainly don’t do any hard workout sessions before a performance.
“It’s the same adrenal resources and that’s too exhausting.”