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Operaspeak!

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As with all professions, clubs, groups and gangs there are sets of words that only that group of people know and understand. Opera is no different and because opera is international, a lot of the language we use come from different countries. Here are some answers to often asked questions.

How do I say “Well done!” in Operaspeak?

As well as clapping, we often shout “Bravo!” (or a variation of it) at the end of a performance. It comes from the Italian. You might though say some other things – assuming you have enjoyed it

  • Bravo!
    When in doubt, it is better not to clap than to clap and get the evil stares of people around you. Also you are bound to hear cheers from the audience of “Bravo.” Bravo for the beginner can be a bit scary, as the word changes based on whom you are saying it to. Here is a quick guide to Bravo:
    • Say Bravo (Brah-voh) to a single male performer’s exceptional performance.
    • Say Brava (Brah-vah) to a single female performer’s exceptional performance.
    • Say Bravi (Brah-vee) to a group of all male performers or a mix of male and female performers’ exceptional performances.
    • Say Brave (Brah-vay) to a group of all female performers’ exceptional performances.
  • Encore!
    A French word, “encore” is what you call out at the end of a performance if you loved so much you want to hear some more. It means "again" or "some more". Though the word derives from French, French-speaking people commonly use either “une autre”, “un rappel” or the Latin “bis”.

How do I say ‘Good Luck!’ in Operaspeak?

The short answer is that you don’t! There are all sorts of things you can say but it is thought to be bad luck if you say “Good Luck!” In opera we tend to say one of four things:

  • “Toi, Toi, Toi” (all over the opera world)
    This is an idiom that is used to ward off a spell or hex, often accompanied by knocking on wood, spitting (or imitating the sound of spitting). It was said that saliva had demon-banishing powers.
  • “Break a leg!” (in England)
    This is a well-known idiom in opera which means "good luck." It is typically said to opera singers and performers before they go out onto stage to perform. It is thought that the phrase came about because when actors bow or curtsy, they place one foot behind the other and bend at the knee, "breaking" the line of the leg.
  • “Halsbruch und Beinbruch“ (in Germany)
    Literally translated this means "neck and leg fracture". A curious thing to say to someone before they go on stage but it is thought that it might be an adaptation of a Yiddish translation that got translated into German. The phrase "Hatsloche un Broche" ("success and blessing") had been translated into the German phrase "Hals- und Beinbruch", because of near similar pronunciation.

  • “In bocca al lupo“ (in Italy)
    This, literally translated, means “in the mouth of the wolf”. If someone says it to you, you should reply "crepi (il lupo)"—"may the wolf die."

In Portugal, France and Spanish-speaking countries, people say something a bit rude - "Loads of Poo!” In the olden days the audience would arrive at the theatre by carriage. Lots of people meant lots of carriages and lots of horses, leaving "loads of poo". Instead of saying "break a leg", those who want to wish good luck to the performers wish "loads of poo" to them. It’s a funny old world!

Are there other things I can’t say or do in the theatre?

Afraid so – theatre and opera is full of odd superstitions.

Like what?

  • Macbeth.
    Shakespeare's play Macbeth is said to be cursed, so actors avoid saying its name (the "The Scottish Play" is used instead). For more guidance on this particular superstition watch the Simpsons episode "MacBeth/Salem Witches" and see what happens to Sir Ian McKellan when he says the word.
  • Whistle
    You can’t whistle in the theatre because of theatre’s association with sailing ships! Because in times gone by stage crews were hired from ships in port (theatrical rigging has its origins in sailing rigging), sailors, and by extension theatrical riggers, used coded whistles to communicate scene changes. Performers who whistled in the theatre could confuse them into changing the set or scenery when it wasn’t meant to be changed. Nowadays, of course, the stage crew uses an intercom or cue light system but it is still considered bad luck for a performer to whistle on or off stage.
  • Fire!
    As singers and performers we never shout ‘Fire!’ in the theatre – even if we discover a real one. Why? - because it might panic the audience and cause a stampede. Each theatre has special code words for performers to use if they discover a fire. The most popular one is “Mr Sands is in the house”.

What happens if I do say any of these words?

Another theatre superstition says that you must leave the theatre building, spin around three times, spit, curse, and then knock to be allowed back in.