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Toi Toi Toi gift from Der Fliegende Holländer
Toi Toi Toi gift from 2012 premiere of Der Fliegende Holländer
(The Flying Dutchman)
. The boat is obvious, the rope is not...
Theatre Traditions and Superstitions
I opened Emmanuel Chabrier’s operette L’Étoile over the weekend and as I was making my Toi Toi Toi present (I’ll come to this shortly), I realized that it is an opportunity to blog about an interesting insight into operatic traditions that not many people may be aware of.

So here are some opera (and theatre) traditions and superstitions that I know of!

Traditions for a Premiere

1. You bring presents for all your fellow cast members
The first premiere in Germany was a strange one. Firstly, I arrived in my dressing room to find it covered in presents from the cast/crew/assistants. Naturally, not being aware of this, I hadn’t bought presents for anyone else!

2. The toi toi toi...
Secondly, the female director's assistant grabbed me in what I thought was going to be some sort of good-luck kiss and instead spat three times over my shoulder.

Toi Toi Toi gift from Ritter Blaubart
Blue gnome candle Toi Toi Toi gift from 2012 premiere of Ritter Blaubart (Knight Bluebeard).

Blue for the knight's beard, a gnome because of another character.
In theatre and opera you never wish each other good luck (See Superstitions below). In Germany, before every premiere, and before any other performance if you feel like it, it is customary to go to each member of the cast, make-up assistant, costume assistant, conductor or anybody else you can find and say “Toi Toi Toi” in a spitting motion over the right shoulder of the person.

An American friend informed me that this is also done in the USA, but Germany was the first place I’ve encountered it. In French speaking countries they will say “Merde!” (Shit!), in Italy they say “In bocca al lupo” (in the mouth of the wolf), there’s “Break a leg!” (Britain/USA and Australia) and the traditional Australian version is “Chookas!”, which apparently is a wish for a good house so that the cast and crew can afford to eat chicken (Wikipedia reference)

The Toi Toi Toi Geschenke (Toi Toi Toi presents) are often cards with sweets or objects that represent something from the opera or the rehearsal period.

For example, one of the gifts I received from Ritter Blaubart (Sir Bluebeard) was a blue gnome, which was blue because of the name of the title role and a gnome, because one of the characters dresses up as a gnome and sings an aria.

I’m a big one for doing personalized cards involving photos of me in costume or make-up – here is one I did for our production of Die Fledermaus (The Bat) earlier this year where I played Alfred.

3. And naturally it’s traditional to throw a party afterwards!

My toi toi toi gift from 2012 premiere of Die Fledermaus
(The Bat)
.

Superstitions

Here are some of the things you never, never do in theatre. There are actually more than this, but these are the ones I’ve been particularly caught out upon:
  1. Wish each other good luck in theatre! That is actually bad luck. Instead say the "toi toi toi" phrases below.
  2. Say toi toi toi, break a leg, merde, in bocca al lupo or chookas, when you are NOT in full costume.
  3. Mention the Scottish play (also known as Macbeth). Instead it needs, at all times, to be referred to as “The Scottish Play”.
  4. Whistle backstage. This one apparently harks back to an era before walkie-talkies, where backstage crew would communicate with whistles.
Do people actually take these seriously? Sadly yes. Not being particularly superstitious, backstage in my very first professional production on stage (as chorister in Opera Australia’s Melbourne season of The Gondoliers) I jokingly made a point of going up to someone and saying Macbeth. The reaction from the group of people who heard me was clear mixture of outrage and fear. I was lucky I wasn't slapped :).

There are a couple of superstitions that work the other way: often if I have had a bad general rehearsal, someone reassures me with "that means the premiere is going to be great". I never considered that part of theatre folk-lore until I read it in several articles I've been reading in my research.

Then, of course, there are stories of people’s own personal superstitions - usually a recipe to overcome stage fright. Pavarotti’s used to attribute his good luck on stage, and the secret to his high notes, to finding a bent nail backstage before a performance. Apparently, he would sometimes spend a great deal of time searching for one - to the point where assistants would start planting bent nails without his knowledge!

Me? I don't know whether it's a habit or a my own personal superstition, but I feel much better with a good cup of coffee before a performance – preferably a cappuccino!

A toi toi toi gift given to me from L'étoile. My gifts given to me in Die Fledermaus
Toi Toi Toi gift from the props department for L'Étoile (The Star).

A cake infused with Chartreuse Vert (the drink of choice)..
All my booty from the 2012 premiere of Die Fledermaus (The Bat).
Links:
Break a Leg - Wikipedia.
Theatrical Superstitions - Wikipedia.
Post Gazette - Pavarotti and Bent Nails.
List Verse - Top 10 Theater Superstitions.
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