Monday, February 7, 2011

Superstitions at the Theater

Today our guest blogger is REBECCA CHAWGO, Associate Director of Individual Giving in Seattle Opera's Development Department, who has much to tell us about Theater Superstitions.

In the Chawgo household the Super Bowl has always been a significant event. Even though my family is now spread out, we all connect on this high-holiday of the world of sports. Since none of the Chawgos are avid Steeler or Packer fans, this year’s conversations centered on who was rooting for whom. When I said I was rooting for the Steelers, my brother quipped that they would therefore lose because I am bad luck. Alas, Jeremy was correct.

Superstitions are prevalent in the sporting world. Some superstitions are held collectively, while others are individualized. In hockey, once the playoffs start, players on playoff teams will not shave until their team has been eliminated. Most basketball players will go through the same routine before taking a free-throw shot; not to do so would bring bad luck. In baseball, many players have special rituals that they follow every game: don’t step on the first base line, always touch first base before entering the outfield, tap their bat on all the corners of homeplate or swing their bar clockwise/counterclockwise two/three/six times before their at-bat. I am not immune to sports superstition. Although I know, rationally, that donning my St. Christopher medal will not determine my performance on the field, why should I tempt fate by not wearing it?

Sports do not hold a monopoly on superstition. The opera and theater world is steeped in tradition and superstition. Many singers and actors have talismans or have pre-performance rituals (step on to the stage only with their right/left foot first, touch the curtain, be the first/last person to exit their dressing room, talk in the green room, never go into the green room). While individual superstitions are varied and many, there are also collective superstitions that permeate the industry. The true origins of many of these superstitions and traditions have been lost over time.

"Break a Leg!"
Never wish an actor or singer good luck before a performance. Common practice is to encourage a performer to break a leg. The origin of the phrase, "Break a leg!", is much disputed.

Many claim the expression originated as a reference to the great nineteenth-century French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, who had her leg amputated. (According to Wikipedia, Bernhardt's amputation was required due to a knee injury that didn’t heal; the injury was sustained jumping from the parapet in the final scene of Victorien Sardou’s La Tosca.) The rationale of this origin seems to be that Bernhardt had an amazing career, and so if people wish you a broken leg you will have the same success.

Eric Partridge's Dictionary of Catch Phrases thinks that there is a connection with the German phrase "Hals und Beinbruch," an invitation to break your neck and bones. While German aviators used this phrase, English-speaking aviators say "Happy Landings."

I have often heard that "Break a leg" comes from John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln; apparently, when Booth made his jump from the balcony to the stage he broke his leg. I have never understood why the theater world would embrace a phrase originating from a presidential assassination as an endearing term of good wishes. Even if the logic made sense, the credibility of this origin is shaky at best. Lincoln assassination scholar, Michael W. Kaufman, questions the credibility of the story that Booth broke his leg his jump to the stage in his book American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies. Kauffman posits that the break more likely happened later during Booth's frenized escape, when his horse fell.

Other common explanations reference breaking the legs or side curtains of the theater, to break the audience members’ legs when they jump up enthusiastically to applaud, or to break or bend your knee as in a bow.

More generally, in many superstitions, wishing one bad luck is actually good luck. "Popular folklore down through the ages is full of warnings against wishing your friends good luck. To do so is to tempt evil spirits or demons to do your friend harm. Better to outwit the demons (who must be rather dim, it seems to me) by wishing your friend bad fortune." (

"Toi toi toi!"
In opera, you hear "Toi toi toi!" more often than "Break a leg." This trio of nonsense syllables imitates spitting on someone: according to the Deutsches W├Ârterbuch, “Toi, toi, toi!" is "An exclamation after a statement or declaration in order to prevent a hex from being put on it, accompanied by knocking on a wooden object such as a table with one’s knuckles. (Onomatopoeic, imitating the sound of spitting, saliva being supposed to have demon-banishing powers. Perhaps from Rotwelsch tof, from Yiddish tow, ‘good.’)”

No whistling backstage!
Some superstitions likely have roots related to particular safety issues. To whistle backstage is a serious taboo.

Long ago, theaters (during non-sailing season) would hire sailors to work the fly loft. (This makes perfect sense when you look at the rails of any theater.) Sailors’ communication while on ships consisted of whistles. With sailors in the fly loft, someone whistling in the theater might cause a sandbag to fall to the stage. While theaters now only hire stage hands with tremendous schooling and talent, the tradition remains. Whistling backstage is not likely to bring a sandbag down on your head, but is considered bad luck nonetheless.

Don’t wear purple!
It's bad luck to wear purple to an Italian opera. The origin of this superstition is unclear. In Italy, the color purple is associated with funerals; it is considered poor taste to wrap gifts in purple paper; and no Italian bride would allow her wedding plan to incorporate purple into her color-scheme.

A possible origin for the theater banning purple goes back to when the Catholic Church banned theater for the duration of Lent, the 40 days prior to Easter. The Clergy wear purple during Lent. Out of respect for the then starving actors and singers, purple wasn't worn to the theater in Italy.

Other Superstitions
Often, you hear that a bad rehearsal means a great opening night. But interestingly, you never seem to hear that unless it was a bad rehearsal.

It is considered bad luck to have real mirrors or real flowers on stage. This may also just be a matter of logistics; flowers will wilt under theater lights and the lighting designer has an extra difficult job if he or she has to worry about a real mirror reflecting lights.

Many theater people avoid saying the name of Shakespeare's cursed "Scottish Play," as the very word brings on bad luck. Opera has its equivalent: Puccini’s Tosca is cursed. While there is no prohibition about saying the name in the theater, the stories of troubled performances of Tosca are many.

There is the popular legend of the bouncing Tosca. Depending on the source and story-teller, the details vary. (At least four sopranos have starred in this story, in different versions.) Basically, Tosca jumps off the parapet and instead of finding the traditional “Tosca matress” for her landing, the crew have replaced it with a trampoline. The Tosca then bounces back into view a varying number of times.

Illustration by British artist Michael ffolkes, which appeared in the book Great Operatic Disasters by Hugh Vickers.

The tradition of Toscas singing "Vissi d’arte" while lying on the floor can be credited with a mishap. During a performance at the Met in the ‘20s, Maria Jeritza had fallen during her fight with Scarpia and completely unfazed, she proceeded to sing the famous aria from the floor.

In a 1965 performance with Maria Callas as Tosca and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia, Callas’ wig caught fire. Gobbi being the consummate professional rechoreographed the fight scene to put out the flames without incident or injury. That same year in Rome, while playing Cavaradossi, Gianni Raimondi suffered burns to his face when a prop gun misfired during the execution scene.

Following in Callas’ footsteps, Russian soprano, Galina Vishnevskaya’s wig caught fire in a Vienna production in the ‘70s. Her Scarpia and Cavaradossi came to her aid, and luckily she suffered only minor burns to her scalp.

While singing at the Met in 1986, Eva Marton took an elbow to her face from her Scarpia, Juan Pons, resulting in a broken jaw.

In a Tosca at the Minnesota Opera in 1993, Elisabeth Knighton Printy jumped from the parapet, missed the Tosca pad and suffered two broken legs.

Seattle Opera’s productions of Tosca have not involved major fires or physical injuries. We just decided to embrace the bad luck by scheduling the Nisqually earthquake during our 2001 run of Tosca.
Information on the Tosca mishaps were found in the following sources:
Anne Edwards, Maria Callas: An Intimate Biography (St. Martin's Press. New York. 2001)
Andrew Gumbel, "Tosca - Out With A Bang" (Independent of London. 6 August 1995)
Johanna Fiedler, Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera (Anchor Books 2003)

If you are looking for an interesting book about sports superstitions, I would recommend Nick Newton and Bill Minutaglio’s Locker Room Mojo.


  1. Ha, how strange... I've never even heard of the "no whistling" rule before. I'd say that's an unusual superstition, but now that I'm thinking about it, all superstitions are pretty unusual. Opening an umbrella indoors is bad luck? But why? I suppose superstitions weren't meant to be rational ;)

    Jane |