An Opera for an English Olympic Hero

Lal White was forgotten by many, even residents of his small English factory town, but the whimsical Cycle Song hopes to change that

Tenor Darren Abraham plays Albert White, the previously unsung steelworker and bicycling champ. (Kieran Dodds)
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Cycle Song—which McMillan calls his “Lal-aby”—provided endless possibilities for assonance. He is particularly pleased with having rhymed peloton with skeleton. “I’m aiming for magic realism,” he says. “And Lal rhymes with magical.”

What McMillan is after isn’t a melodramatic tale, say, about White and his Olympic quest, but something more metaphysically evolved. What interests him is allegory. He savors the symbolism in the way bike wheels move incessantly forward, yet never escape their cyclical nature. “A spinning wheel always comes back to its starting point,” McMillan says. He marvels at how the mathematical symbol for infinity—the figure eight tipped sideways— resembles a bike. “On one level, the bicycle is a kind of life cycle,” he says. “On another, it’s a metaphor for eternity.”

As his opera opens, the setting moon fades into the rising sun over a stage composed of three circular platforms of varying heights. “Bathed in the golden light of dawn, the discs glow like Olympic rings or gold medals,” says McMillan. “The swaying choirs on the upper level effectively become clouds, drifting, drifting. As smoke billows from the stacks of the Four Queens, the deep-red stage lights shine brighter and brighter, almost blinding the audience. We’ve created the Scunthorpe sky. The stage is the Scunthorpe of the mind.”

The scene shifts to a candy store, not unlike the one White ran in Scunthorpe market. A small boy, who may or may not be Young Lal, wanders in. The shop owner, who may or may not be Old Lal, sings the “Song of White”:

This is a town and a dream coinciding
This is a town and a dream colliding
You’re carrying the hopes of a town on
your bike frame
Your wheels are going round
and we’re singing out your name!

In the sharp light, the jagged, vaporous landscape of the steelworks lies calm and hazy blue-gray. Suddenly, 100 cyclists burst through the gate. “The group will move like a giant fish, with each rider a scale,” offers Beale, the director. “I have a recurring nightmare that one cyclist falls, starting a domino effect that topples them all, like in a circus.” And if the dream becomes reality? “In the circus, a trapeze artist plummets from a tightrope,” he says with a small sigh. “Or an elephant stomps a clown. You’ve got to carry on.”

The denouement is set at the Antwerp Olympics. White loses the big race, but wins the hearts of the crowd. “Winning is not the important thing,” says Beale. “Striving is, and Lal was a peerless striver.”

Though White crosses the finish line, he’s not finished. A crane hoists him and his bike into the air. He spirals upward, toward an immense, shimmering balloon—the moon. “Like E.T., he cycles into the sky, the night, the future,” McMillan explains. “Like Lal, all of us have the ability to soar beyond the possible.”

And how will the people of Scunthorpe react to the sight of their beloved steelworker ascending into the heavens? “They’ll weep with joy,” McMillan predicts. There is the slightest of pauses. “Or, perhaps, relief.”

Photographer Kieran Dodds is based in Glasgow, Scotland. Stuart Freedman is a photographer who works from London.

About Franz Lidz

A longtime Senior Writer at Sports Illustrated and the author of several memoirs, Franz Lidz has written for the New York Times since 1983, on travel, TV, film and theater. He is a frequent contributor to Smithsonian.

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