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Opera talk

If you hear "Toi, toi, toi" at tonight's Houston Grand Opera performance, don't be surprised

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A scene from the Houston Grand Opera production of "Queen of Spades," which opens tonight. Photo by by Johan Jacobs/Courtesy of La Monnaie

If you’re sophisticated enough to know that you should say, "Toi, toi, toi!" to a performer before a performance of  Houston Grand Opera's production of Queen of Spades, are you wise enough to know whether you’re uttering “you” three times in French, banishing the devil in German or spitting?

I’m a longtime opera lover, but I must admit I never even heard of this opera expression until recentl, during a local The Met: Live in HD presentation. Diva Renee Fleming said something that sounded exactly like “Toy, toy, toy!” to a singer who was about to go onstage. Since this opera didn’t involve any toys, I figured Renee was saying something in opera code — probably Chinese  — that meant well, as she sported a dazzling smile. I don’t know any Chinese writing symbols, though, so I was worried about my chances of finding that on the Internet with any luck.

Apart from discovering that this expression has nothing to do with China, I couldn’t find a commonly accepted, bottom-line explanation of its origin online. I started with The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s “Ask The Diva," who said, in response to another opera lover’s question, that Renee Fleming’s “Toi, toi, toi” is an expression that’s used on an opera stage, “chiefly in Germany,” to wish a singer good luck.

All the Internet sources agree that this is the operatic equivalent of the theater’s “Break a leg!” But all offer differing explanations of its roots, if they go any further. One source cites a German dictionary as saying this superstitious expression imitates the sound of spitting, to banish demons, and suggests the word might ultimately be traced to a Yiddish word meaning “good.” Most Internet sources I’ve found say “Toi, toi, toi” is either a corruption of the German word for devil, “Teufel” (pronounced TOY-fell), or a modern-day refinement of the ancient ritual of embracing someone and spitting three times over their shoulder to wish them good luck.

Frustrated by these ongoing uncertainties, I became obsessed with finding a local informed source. What with my German DNA, my experience of having seen an entire Wagnerian opera, and all the homework I’d done on this topic, I felt I was ready to turn to the German Consulate in Houston. What are we doing, calling out the devil or spitting? I asked consulate staffer Gertrud Schroeder, a seasoned opera-goer.

“It could be either way,” Schroeder said diplomatically.

Pressed further, she noted that in her experience, people in Germany traditionally have said, and still say, “Toi, toi, toi!” to one another before all kinds of challenges.

“In order to ward off evil, they cited the Teufel,” said Schroeder. “It’s not restricted to opera.”

For example, she said, a German might say “Toi, toi, toi!” to wish a student good luck before an exam, or if Schroeder wanted to wish me luck before writing a big report. Danke, Frau Schroeder! That’s gut for me. I can hardly wait to “Toi, toi, toi” at my next opera.

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