Superstition in Opera

13 August 2021
Vicar holds woman's hand while she looks forward with a happy expression on her face.

As Friday the 13th has arrived, here at Welsh National Opera we take a look at some of the tales and superstitions steeped in the Opera and theatre world. Not only are these superstitious practices in opera storylines themselves, but in pre-performance rituals too such as backstage and performers’ superstitious ways.

One of the most common quirks in Opera is hearing the greeting ‘Toi Toi Toi’ which is similar to the theatre superstitious expression ‘Break a leg’ to wish artists success in their performance. Other old tales date back centuries, and are often rather extreme, with it rumoured that it is bad luck to see the conductor or even speak to the director on the day of the performance.

Some sources claim there are more superstitions related to performing, such as not wearing purple to an Italian opera because of its association with funerals in Italy, not having real mirrors or flowers on stage as they are a symbol of bad luck, and no whistling backstage. Bad rehearsals apparently   mean a great opening night and you should never say the word Tosca.

Not only are there pre-performance rituals among singers and performers, but there are many superstitious tales from specific operas themselves. La Forza del destino by Italian composer Guiseppe Verdi, is renowned for its cursed nature due to a number of unfortunate events related to performances of the opera. It is said that in 1960 at the Metropolitan Opera, baritone Leonard Warren collapsed and died during the performance, and this later led to being a rumoured reason behind Pavarotti never performing the opera to avoid this cursed bad luck. This eerie occurrence has been remembered in the opera world ever since, and it is believed that many opera followers accept the Verdi masterpiece is cursed.

Another opera rumoured to be cursed is Puccini’s Tosca, relating again to its many troubled performances which has prompted many to believe it is bad luck to say the word while at the theatre. There are several remembered unfortunate incidents from performances of Tosca, such as in 1965, when Maria Callas’ wig caught on fire. However, as a true opera professional, she continued to perform while re-choreographing her routine to put out the flames. Similarly, this incident occurred again in the 1970s as Galina Vishnevskaya’s wig caught fire in a Vienna production however she only suffered minor burns to the scalp, how very unfortunate for these performers.

As it is Friday 13, we must mention the often unlucky connection which is made to this number. The opera and theatre world are no exception, with many performers avoiding this number completely while performing on stage. One example is when the Italian Contralto Marietta Alboni was given the dressing room 13 and claimed that under no circumstance at all would she accept this room number which was the only one available. This then gave her the status of a well-known diva in the opera world. WNO wishes you all a ‘Toi Toi Toi’ if you’re heading out today.