|Elaine Alvarez in BLO's 2015 production of Kátya Kabanová.
Photo by Eric Antoniou.
Opera lovers may be familiar with the phrase, toi, toi, toi, uttered among singers before the house lights fade and the conductor lifts the baton. Pronounced TOY (rather than TO-WAH like the French word for you), the mystique of this tradition of well-wishing is woven tightly into the superstitious history of the performing arts and the multicultural mélange of opera. So, what does toi, toi, toi mean, and where did it come from?
Working in the theater is one of the most superstitious professions, said to be second only to horse racing. This is undoubtedly in part because there is a long history of backstage crews being made up of sailors on leave, navy or otherwise. Sailors brought with them their own traditions and superstitions that, when brought into the theater, stuck. For example, to whistle on deck of a ship is considered bad luck, and so it is also bad luck to whistle onstage or backstage in a theater. Among the many things it is unlucky to do in a theater, one of the worst is to wish a performer good luck.
Toi, toi, toi is an onomatopoetic imitation of the sound of spitting, done to ward of a hex or evil spirits. It is always uttered three times, and sometimes accompanied by pantomimed spitting over someone’s shoulder while in an embrace. It comes from Yiddish, Hebrew, and Old German traditions where saliva was believed to have demon-banishing powers. Some even say it is a shortened version of the German word teufel, meaning “devil,” thus uttering his name to ward him off. It is a common good luck sentiment to wish someone in Germany regardless of the context. How this became specifically associated with opera remains a mystery, but in the superstitious theater, warding off evil spirits can only be helpful!
Alternatively, you may have heard opera singers wish each other in bocca al lupo, Italian for “in the mouth of the wolf.” The traditional reply is crepi il lupo, or simply crepi, meaning “may the wolf die.” It is an Italian idiomatic expression that refers to any challenging scenario, likening it to being caught between the jaws of a wild beast. Perhaps this is similar to the circus trick of putting one’s head in the mouth of a lion or even a biblical reference to Daniel in the lion’s den. Although it is also unclear how this saying became associated with opera, it is clear that Italian theater and music traditions have had a tremendous influence on the art form.
The most common and well-known (at least in America!) expression of good luck in the theater is “break a leg.” There are many anecdotes and theories as to how this tradition began, yet the sentiment remains the same. Similarly, at the ballet, and later extended to all dance forms, dancers wish each other merde in French. Again, there are many theories about how this tradition began, but this one is my favorite: Since wealthy patrons used to arrive by horse-drawn carriage, the more horse droppings out in front of the theater, the more paying spectators were inside!
So next time you are in the Theatre District and happen to run into a performer before a show begins, tell opera singers, “Toi, toi, toi!” or “In bocca al lupo.” Exclaim “Merde!” to a dancer, and when in doubt, “Break a leg!” will always work. Above all, honor the long-standing and often strange tradition in theater by avoiding the words “good luck” before the curtain opens; if not you may risk unintentionally wishing the opposite!
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- Rebecca Ann S. Kirk, Manager of Education Programs