Major Taylor, the fastest Bicycle Rider in the World

Major Taylor, the fastest Bicycle Rider in the World (2007/08/09)

with financial support of the Nederlands Fonds voor de Podiumkunsten

The opera  is based on the life story of Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor, born in 1878, son of a poor farmhand in the south of the United States.
He was a black man living in a time when segregation of black and white was dominating society.
As it happened, he had one outstanding talent: he could ride the bicycle (of which the technical development was booming at that time) faster than anyone else. A splendid career in track race cycling lay ahead. A perfect chance to escape from the misery of his social class.
With great determination and discipline he developed his talent and, in spite of massive, openly racist opposition, he succeeded in reaching the top of his sport in America, Australia and Europe.
But, the higher his star rose, the more isolated he became. He was never fully accepted by the white upper class and when he stopped racing, he was completely alienated from the black lower class to which he was born. Attempts to find a new living after his racing career failed. His wife Daisy and daughter Sydney left him.
At last he desperately tried to conjure up his successful cycling life by writing his autobiography. Nobody was interested. He was forgotten.
On Tuesday 21 June 1932 Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor died in Cook County Hospital in Chicago. No one was present. He was buried in the grave of the poor.

The opera is written for solo clarinet (representing Major Taylor himself), actress (Sydney, Taylor’s daughter), soprano (Daisy, Taylor’s wife), baritone (Munger, Taylor’s manager), mixed choir, and orchestra with the instrumentation of the Orkest de Volharding.

The libretto is written by Fer Bank and based on quotations from contemporary newspaper articles, interviews and Taylor’s autobiography. The order is not chronological. The opera begins with Taylor’s death and ends with his greatest triumph, winning the world championship.

The sounds from nature recorded on a cd play an important role. They indicate in which ‘season’ of Taylor’s life an ACT is situated: wind for winter, birds for spring, rain for autumn and crickets for summer. During the PROLOGUE the breakers on the beach can be heard and during the EPILOGUE everything is drowned by the sound of a cheering crowd in a full stadium.

Major Taylor is not represented on stage throughout the whole opera, except for the reciting of Taylor’s poem at the end of ACT 3. His role is played by an invisible solo clarinettist behind the scenes. The sound of the clarinet must be amplified.

Sydney (actress/speaking voice) is a woman of about 80 years old. She remains present on stage throughout the whole opera. When she is quoting from Taylor’s writings (autobiography etc.), she wears reading glasses. When she is not quoting, she puts them off.
Although the other players sometimes react on what she says, they do not seem aware of her physical presence. They ignore her completely. She belongs to a different world in a later period of time.

Preference is given to a staging in two colours, black and white, throughout the whole opera,
except for the EPILOGUE. Only then other colours are used: the five colours of the world champion jersey (blue, red, black, yellow, green). They appear on an authentic, black-and-white photograph, showing Major Taylor in full cycling wear, along with his racing bicycle.

It is the intention to stage this opera in 2010/11.


The stage represents a ward for the poor of the Cook County Hospital in Chicago in 1932.
On an old hospital bed are some worn-out clothes. Beside the bed is a chair with a pile of unsold copies of  Marshall ‘Major’ Taylor’s autobiography.
Taylor’s daughter, Sydney, a black woman of about 80 years old, enters the stage.
She puts on reading glasses, takes the patient’s card and reads out loud the medical statistics of her deceased father.
The choir, which is behind the scenes, enumerates the nicknames given to Taylor by the press during his career.
Sydney recalls her problematic relationship with her father.
A few newspaper boys run across the stage announcing Taylor’s death.

It is winter, around 1930.
Daisy, Major Taylor’s black wife, who is not so young anymore, enters the living room of their house in Worcester – USA. Its furnishing shows that the occupants are not so well-to-do as they used to be.
Sydney puts on reading glasses and (together with the solo clarinet representing Taylor throughout the whole of the opera) quotes some passages from Taylor’s autobiography, concerning the idealistic motives which led him to write his memoirs.
Daisy complains that all attention is exclusively focused on her husband. She is ignored.
Sydney supposes that the desperate need to earn some money had been a more down-to-earth reason for her father to write his book.
Munger, Taylor’s manager, a middle-aged, white man, enters the stage together with the male singers of the choir. They announce the end of Taylor’s career. ‘It’s all over!’
The members of the choir return behind the scenes, carrying off all the pieces of furniture one by one.
Taylor is quoted again by Sydney. He claims to have written his autobiography to help his own, black people. Sydney and Daisy express their doubts. ‘You were color struck. Not proud to be a Negro’.
Munger leaves the stage. He cannot help Taylor anymore.
Daisy is alone. She is left with nothing. She demonstrates her disappointment in an aria, accompanied by the female singers, who are still behind the scenes.


It is spring, around 1890.
In the background is Munger’s cycle shop. A number of high-wheel bicycles (big front wheel, small rear wheel), along with a number of safety bikes (both wheels having the same size) are on show.
Munger, now a young man in his thirties, is busy putting bicycles outside.
Sydney tells how Taylor as a young man lived with a wealthy, white family and learned how to ride a bicycle.
Half the choir enter the stage. They are watching Major Taylor (who is invisible for the audience) performing some tricks on his bike.
Munger invites Taylor to come and work with him as promoter of his new invention, the safety bike. Taylor agrees.
Supported by the choir Munger announces the beginning of a new era, symbolized by his invention, the safety bike, called The Munger.
The other half of the choir enter the stage. They accompany the reigning cycling world champion, Arthur Augustus Zimmerman, who is riding an old fashioned high-wheel bicycle.
Munger announces him as the champion of today, but introduces Taylor as the champion of tomorrow.
Both riders are challenged to race against each other. They accept.
Taylor describes how he competes with Zimmerman and finally wins.
Munger and the choir welcome the new champion. ‘He beat Zimmerman. He is the fastest!’


It is autumn, around 1920.
Major Taylor’s living room in Worcester again. Its furnishing shows that the occupants are quite
Daisy, somewhat getting on in years, is sitting at a table, reading a letter from her husband. She is holding it near the light of a lamp, while reading it out loud.
Taylor tells how homesick he is during his stay in Paris. Although very successful in the beginning,
he is not winning anymore. He is extremely unhappy and wants to return to his family.
Sydney gives her view on the strained marriage of her parents.
Munger, who is not so young anymore, strongly advises Taylor to stop cycling. ‘You have reached
your zenith. Do not stay too long in it!’
Enclosed in the letter is a poem by Taylor himself. The solo clarinettist (invisible during the rest of the opera!) enters the stage. He joins Sydney, who recites the poem, standing near an upright player piano (or disklavier), that produces the accompaniment mechanically.
Finally Sydney and the clarinettist are joined by Daisy and Munger and together they repeat over and over again the last line of the poem: ‘Just think of the wonderful days we’ve had!’
Except for Sydney all leave the stage.

It is summer, around 1910.
Major Taylor’s changing room in a velodrome. The stands and the racing track are behind the scenes, so they cannot be seen. On stage are a few doors, which, when opened and closed, let in and shut out the noise of the spectators on the stands. On a bed is a human figure (Taylor) sleeping under a blanket.
Munger, in the prime of life, enters the stage and sits down on the edge of the bed. He recalls how important he has been for Taylor’s career.
Sydney mentions Taylor’s reasons for refusing to ride on Sundays. It’s against his religious principles.
Daisy, also in the prime of life, enters the stage, carrying a big cup, flowers and a laurel wreath. She declares her love for Taylor.
At the same time the choir, divided into 8 groups, is entering the stage through the doors, letting in and shutting out the noise of the crowd.  They sing the nicknames (the same as in the PROLOGUE) Taylor was given by the press.
When reached the stage, the choir split up in two opposing groups.
One of the male singers is in full cyclist’s outfit. Supported by one group of the choir, he shouts through a megaphone a number of openly racist opinions. The other group of the choir protest by calling for equal rights.
The male singer takes place on a home trainer and starts cycling, trying to break Taylor’s world record, that is clearly indicated on a board. There is a big dial , on which can be seen how much progress he is making. He fails. Disappointed, he stumbles down from his bike.

An authentic, black-and-white photograph of Taylor in full cycling wear, along with his racing bicycle can be seen above the hospital bed.
The choir members leave the stage through the doors, which this time are left open, so that gradually the sound of the spectators becomes louder and louder, until it is hardly bearable.
Finally Sydney closes Taylor’s autobiography with a loud bang, simultaneously with the closing of the doors by the choir. The sound of the cheering crowd in the velodrome stops suddenly.
The stage is empty now, except for Sydney.
Again she expresses her fear, that her father was ashamed of being black. ‘I don’t think you were proud to be a Negro’
She leaves the stage. The five colours of the world champion jersey (blue, red, black, yellow and green) appear one by one on the black-and-white photograph of Taylor.
The solo clarinet has the last word.