Once again it is opera season, and many of America’s operagoers are writing me to ask about a rather upsetting matter to the would-be cognoscente, the matter of the inarticulable “bravo.”Here is a recent letter from a Yonkers man, typical of the dozens coming to my desk every morning.
DEAR MR. SACK:
What is a good way of bringing oneself to cry the word “bravo” in a concert hall or an opera house? I have been trying to join in this practice for nigh on to twenty-five years, and I’ve always been held back at the last second by a dim, irrational fear of appearing like a perfect ass. Do you know some way of my overmastering this?
As it turned out, there was no way practical in W.’s case. An exchange of letters between me and his family brought to light a traumatic experience that happened to W. at age eleven, when taken to a violin recital at Carnegie Hall. In love with the music, in ignorance of the musical amenities, he committed the gaffe of applauding at the end of the first movement, whereupon a lady in the parterre shouted down at him to “Hush up, dammit,” and a dowager type seated in front of him, spinning about, threw him a real roundhouse with an alligator handbag. The general sense of the audience forced him to wait out the concert inside the cloakroom, hidden in his mother’s topcoat. This unfortunate experience managed to so burn itself in W.’s subconscious as to bring on a phobia against crying the word “bravo,” or even the word “bingo,” in a public hall, and I had to recommend to W. he give up operagoing entirely. He is now an irreproachable fan of the national tennis championships, in Forest Hills.
Fortunately, procedure of such a radical sort is not indicated in most of my correspondents’ cases. No phobia, but only a want of selfconfidence, is the reason they discover themselves at the opera, night after night, with the consonants of “bravo” fluttering about on their lips, endeavoring, like a newlyborn bird, to take wing. The selfsame people are sure to be crying “Taxi!” a few minutes later with a gusto equal to any man’s. In leaching them to find confidence, I have always thought it a help to divide the course in two: confidence in one’s self, and confidence in what one is going to say. Tuition is seventy-five dollars a term, exclusive of laboratories.
Confidence in one’s self. Consider, if you will, the Metropolitan Opera House. An awe-inspiring place. It surely takes a man of some audacity to go, with no previous training, to that ambiance, privy to Godknows-what acquaintances, and to scream across it a word of whose meaning he can only be half aware. The rest of us will have to face learning to hop before learning to high jump. I am thinking right now of one operagoer, with a place in Dutchess County, who started on his training regimen early in the summer by roaring the phrases “Two dollars!" and “Three dollars!” at country auctions, building up a sense of self-assurance and also acquiring, as a kind of lagniappe, a pair of Hepplewhite chairs and a very presentable cedarwood tea caddy.
Another man, an elder in a Presbyterian church, made it his habit to cry “Amen!” with uncustomary verve. Any of these exercises is good as far as it goes; and yet there can be no equal to concert-hall experience itself. Accordingly, I’ve always thought well of a novice’s going to performances of Handel’s Messiah and, as a drill in acquiring selfconfidence without a need of actually vocalizing, being the first to rise to the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Music lovers who have done it testify that a nimble foot, triggered with a ready ear, invariably brings them to an upright position three to four seconds before the rest of the audience. The experiences of these people prove there is no better way to fatten the bones of our selfconfidence than to rise to our feet at the very first hallelujah, stare patriotically foward, and listen to everyone else in the concert hall, like sheep, rising around us. (Caution: Do not rise for the “We, like sheep” chorale.)
Self-confidence ours, many of us are still going to find ourselves inhibited by a fear that “bravo” is the wrong kind of thing to shout, that a word of an entirely different nature, such as “whoop-de-do,” or “ole” perhaps, somehow would be more appropriate. Either that, or we’re going to fear that a word like “whoop-de-do” is not appropriate and that we’re about to shout it anyhow, victims of an almost pardonable confusion; in either case it is clear that what is needed is confidence in what one is going to shout. If you think about it, this kind of confidence and the self kind of confidence are really opposite sides of the same coin. Consider the single example “bis,” a Latinism that is often found on the lips of knowledgeable concertgoers and is in effect equivalent to the English “Play it again, please.” Well, it would certainly be easy to confuse a word like “bis” with a word like “biscuit,” and yet there is no one whose self-confidence would be as irrecoverably shattered as a man who had just shouted “biscuit” in a crowded concert hail. The looks of pitiful condescension from the people seated around him he wouldn’t be likely soon to forget.
And this is no theoretical point. As all connoisseurs of the opera know, the tail end of our word “bravo” is most elusive. Sometimes it appears as it does in “bravo,” sometimes as in “brava,” sometimes as in “bravi,” sometimes as in “brave,” and a gentleman of any savoir-faire would as soon be caught saying an improper “bravo” instead of a “brava” as freshening up in a room marked “signore” instead of “signori.” Hence, a rookie is only choosing the side of common sense when he makes certain never to be at the opera without a tidy, readyreference list of bravo’s metamorphoses, indexed according to number and gender. And never forget to roll those r’s!
Practice anticipates performance. At last we are ready, confidently, to make a debut at the Metropolitan. We have chosen ourselves an opera Where the line between male and female, singular and plural, is carefully drawn, conscientiously avoiding one in which women are to play the parts of men or men to play three or four men, as in Les Contes d’Hoffmann. As if we didn’t have enough to worry about! We have bought ourselves standing room at the back of the orchestra, the better to be unseen, and we have waited through the first two and a half acts at a bar around the corner. Come, let us settle the bill and be off. A taxi is ready to take our unreliable legs to the opera house, and now we are there, in the nick of time, as the curtain falls on a stage full of male plural. A quick look at the crib card sewn to the collar of an accomplice seated in front of us and we learn that a “bravi” is called for. So take hold of the railing, laddies . . . close your eyes . . . get ready . . . get set, now go!
Bravi! Bravi! Bravi! Bra—
Why is everyone glowering at us? What, you never should applaud at Parsifal? Oh my goodness, let’s get out of here !
JOHN SACKhas written many magazine articles and is the author of three books. His base is New York City, but he spent last winter as head instructor at a ski resort on Lake Superior.