Performers are known for their superstitions. The most respected Shakespearean actor will cringe at any inadvertent reference to “Macbeth”; the most elegant prima ballerina will quake before her thirty-two fouetté turns after hearing a hearty cry of “good luck!”; the most refined concert pianist will worry about razor blades in the piano keys after crossing paths with a black cat. Even the most rational and anti-superstitious performer can’t help but take a moment to question the wisdom of opening an umbrella indoors.
Opera singers are no exception to this rule. In fact, opera singers are far more neurotically superstitious than any other type of performer, a fact that is directly linked to the same “diva” gene that necessitates contract clauses, soprano catfights, and the placement of a dozen white lilies in the lead tenor’s dressing room.
Opera superstitions fall into two categories. First, there are pre-performance superstitions: relatively harmless traditions used by individual opera singers to ensure a successful performance. These superstitions can range from the benign (drinking a cup of jasmine tea and watching “The Sound of Music”) to the bizarre (sleeping with a musical score under the pillow in order to transmit musicality through osmosis) to the positively fanatical (dressing up in Joan Sutherland’s old nightgown and hopping on one foot while singing “The trumpet shall sound”).
The second category of opera superstitions is made up of more personal, more potent, and far more dangerous superstitions. These beliefs generally don’t have anything to do with opera in the grander sense but they are somehow always found in massive quantities in the twisted psyche of the average young singer.
To the untrained eye, Claire Coloratura may appear to be a well-adjusted young woman. She comes to rehearsals on time, engages in healthy competition with her fellow sopranos, and hits a hell of a high E on a regular basis. Scratch beneath the surface of those shimmering cadenzas, however, and you will discover that Claire has been wearing the same pair of lucky socks every day since the 7th grade. She also brushes her teeth in 147 cycles of counter-clockwise rotation, eats a jar of capers with milk every Thursday at 4:13pm, and has taken a personal vow only to date men named Sam.
And it isn’t just the sopranos. Barry Baritone certainly looks like a regular Joe six-pack (without the six-pack, of course), but he also has fourteen lucky turtles, only speaks in Pig Latin to his girlfriend, and paints his toenails a delightful shade of maroon before every performance.
Tommy Tenor coordinates the color of his boxer-briefs to the musical keys of Pavarotti’s Greatest Hits albums and writes emails in a code constructed from “Die schöne Müllerin.” And, in case you couldn’t tell from his inspiring performance as Don Ottavio, Tommy also sings a rousing falsetto rendition of “Sempre libera” every morning between shampooing his mustache and shaving his chest.
These personal superstitions may seem to be innocuous. After all, Claire’s obsession with capers, Barry’s penchant for poikilotherms, and Tommy’s color-coordinated Calvin Kleins do not affect their operatic performances in a negative way. Just the opposite, in fact: listen to one of Claire’s coloratura runs, and you’ll be damned if you don’t notice that each staccato note is as dazzling clear as a tasty caper.
But don’t be fooled. These superstitions may appear to help opera singers achieve success, but they are actually more likely to transform a performer into post-op Bruce Banner than Beverly Sills.
Moreover, this threat to musical sanity is growing more powerful every day. Dozens of new singers are infected on a daily basis, and the superstitions are getting more and more bizarre. I recently met a young mezzo-soprano who makes every life decision depending on the responses of her Magic 8-Ball. Clearly, it is only a matter of time before we have Toscas who brandish rabbit feet instead of daggers and Mimis who die of triskaidekaphobia instead of consumption.
Still, I urge each of you to try your utmost to defeat that sneaky demon of superstitious nonsense. Superstitious traditions can’t replace solid hard work when it comes to a performance, and only a fool would actually expect those crusty socks from 7th grade to help with that melisma at the end of “Spargi d’amaro pianto.”
The only way to overcome your superstitions is to face them. So, make friends with black cats, walk underneath ladders, and wish everyone a boisterous “Good luck!” for their production of “Macbeth.”
And if you still don’t think that you’ll be able to overcome all of your superstitious hocus pocus – don’t worry.
I’ll be crossing my fingers for you.