Everywhere in the world after a successful performance like a live music show or theater play, you can hear audience yelling "Bravo!" to the performers regardless of their gender or number. Is this also true in Italy? Given the existence of the distinguished feminine form "brava", wouldn't it sound queer or even impolite to a female Italian performer if I say bravo to her, especially if she doesn't know that I'm not a native speaker?
In Italian, saying “Bravo!” rather then “Brava!” to a female would sound mostly funny, so you'd better use the latter, and “Bravi!” when addressing, say, a band or a performing group.
Addendum: There is a whole (short) book about the history of the Italian word bravo from the original meaning of “violent, bold”, derived from Latin barbarus, to the modern sense of “good, able”: Giuseppe Patota, Bravo!, il Mulino 2016.
A chapter, in particular, covers the use in the meaning mentioned in this question, confirming that bravo! has always agreed with the number and gender of the people so addressed. A 1826 Dizionario e bibliografia musicale by Peter Lichtenthal attests that:
Si usa anche in plurale bravi, brave, allorché due o più cantanti o sonatori eseguiscono per eccellenza un Duetto, o Terzetto od altro pezzo concertato. Anche ad un Corpo intero s'indirizza talvolta, p.e. brava orchestra ec. Una picciola osservazione ancora. Molti hanno la strana abitudine di usare per la parola bravo tutt'altra prosodia in teatro che fuora del medesimo. Fa dunque specie a sentir gridare taluni a guisa de' Francesi bravò in vece di bravo ...
And Patota likens those Italians using the French-like pronunciation in the 19th century to those who today use Italian or Latin terms with an English pronunciation:
A pensarci bene, gli italiani che, duecento anni or sono, pronunciavano alla francese un bravó che i nostri cugini d'Oltralpe avevano preso da noi fanno il paio con certi loro compatrioti d'oggi, che pronunciano all'inglese i vari giùnior, mìdia e plàs che l'inglese ha prelevato dal latino. Il nostro provincialismo ha radici antiche, non c'è che dire [p. 107].
Well, this isn't obvious, so I'll try to give you some explanations.
Like others have pointed out, you can't always say bravo. This is a normal adjective used to describe people, and so you'll have to use the proper ending depending on who you're talking about. The feminine singular form is brava. The plural forms are bravi and brave for masculine and feminine respectively.
Saying bravo to a woman is incorrect. Although it's not really impolite, it may make you sound as if you were mocking the performer for addressing her like a man, so don't make fun with it.
So why do all non-Italian speakers always say bravo? I can point out at least two reasons for this.
First of all, most languages treat loanwords as invariant, especially if they can't be assimilated to fit the typical inflection rules.
Furthermore, speakers of many languages will feel that they're talking about the performance rather than the performers. They may think of bravo as a way to say "great show!" or "good job!". In this sense, bravo would be used as an interjection rather than an adjective. But even when bravo is perceived as an adjective in the speaker's own language, declension would not apply. The best example is probably Spanish where you always say bravo for a good performance, despite the fact that singular endings -a/-o for adjectives are the same as in Italian.
The Italian word "bravo" is used in English, French and many others. These languages take only the masculine form of the Italian adjectives and apply it to both genders. In Italian "bravo" is an adjective and its gender must agree with the noun. So for a woman, you should say "brava". In a concert, we say "brava" to a female performer, not "bravo". This is what we do in, Italy too, at a concert.
Other than that, "bravo" in Italian is something we say often to kids for something they did well and it may not be the most appropriate way of paying a compliment to someone. Personally, if speaking directly to a music performer, I would say "complimenti" or something more complex like "La tua interpretazione mi ha molto emozionato".
As clami219 said:
No! To speak correct and polite Italian you would have to say:
"Brava" to a single female performer,
"Bravo" to a single male performer,
"Brave" to many female performers (not even one male performer among them),
"Bravi" to many performers if there is at least one male performer among them.
I just want to add that really everyone in Italy use the above, so if an Italian hear a "BRAVO!" instead of "BRAVA!" immediately think to a foreign person that doesn't know the correct way to say that, and for this it's difficult to be offended for a "BRAVO!"
If you are speaking English, use English conjugation rules, not Italian.
In English, the verb does not change to agree with the gender of the subject it is referring to. It does in other Romance languages but not in English. "Bravo" has been assimilated from other languages, as have a vast range of other words. I don't believe reverting to Italian conjugation rules is necessary. If you say "bravo" and the performer is female, it depends if you are saying "bravo" in English. If you are saying "bravo" in Italian then there would be an issue.
Perhaps if you were an English speaker yet said "bravo" with an Italian accent that would be crossing the line. We're splitting hairs here. At the end of the day the only way to be disrespectful is to say "bravo" with Italian sounding phonetics to a female performer where they know and expect you to speak and understand Italian.
Otherwise if you are an English speaker and pronounce "bravo" with English phonetics you aren't saying anything wrong because that word is recognized as an English word. It is in English dictionaries. As are other words like ballet, lingerie, cuisine, bureau, cafe. They may have come from other languages but they are fully fledged official words of the English language and are to be pronounced with English phonetics when spoken and obey English grammar rules. The fact that "bravo" also appears in Italian and can change form depending on usage is interesting trivia but that is as far as it should go.
Premise: "Bravo", as an exclamation (hence indeclinable) came into use in French, English and other European languages from the (declinable) Italian adjective through the Italian Opera, since around the half of 18° century (there has been a little issue of priority about it: yet it seems the term is documented in French since 1738, while in English it dates 1761. The use in German is only documented since 1854).
In Italian , while of course "bravo" is a declinable adjective, and should be used as such, the artistic and theatre jargon may borrow, and does, the French- English term, so it is perfectly correct and polite (yet not very common) to express appreciation to a female performer yelling "bravo" , or writing it in an art review, especially in a context of classic music and opera. In this case it would be understood as a foreign term, and not Italian, though.
Can you say bravo to a female performer? Yes.
Should you say bravo to a female performer? No. As you observed, it might be perceived as queer or even mocking/disrespectful, even if non-native speakers can get a free pass.
The correct form in Italian is "brava" ("brave" for a plurality of females, "bravo" for a male, "bravi" for the mixed case).
That said, when you say bravo to a female performer, this may fall in two categories:
- you are clearly an Italian, or can be mistaken for Italian, i.e., it will be expected of you that you use the proper Italian form - which you didn't. People will either re-evaluate you as non-Italian and point out to you with a smile that you should have said brava, assume that you're using the English invariant form (see below) and say nothing, or politely rebuke you by congratulating for your otherwise flawless Italian (it might also be a genuine congratulation, though); or they will assume that you're mocking the performer or accusing her of something (in this case, however farfetched, it might be of being a closet lesbian, of taking male hormones - it may happen at a sporting event -, or even to be a transvestite).
- you are clearly not an Italian: your appearance, accent, or context (e.g. in a group of English persons) shows that Italian is not your native language. In that case, intelligent people will assume that you're using the English term 'bravo', which while borrowed from Italian, is invariant. This will be even more apparent if there's more than one performer, so that 'bravo' matches neither sex nor number. There's still a risk of some slow-witted person not 'getting it', but then it will be more clearly his fault.
Since you do know the difference, I'd go for the Italian correct form in all cases. At worst, some non-Italian speaker will politely enquire on why you don't say bravo, and you will be able to educate him at no loss for you, and some gain for him.
As a classic and opera music lover, living in UK for the last 20 years, I really like the question, as it touches things I've experimented many a times.
Le'ts assume I'm at the Royal Opera House at the end of an opera. I'm part of an audience coming from all over the globe. I'm pleased with the performance and the performance. What do I do?
What I normally do is really shouting my appreciation with a series of "Bravo!", intermixed with "Bravi!" (in no order or preference). In reality, for a really good performance, you just want to voice your appreciation in any possible way.
And the soprano? Same: "Bravo!" (as most of the audience) and "Brava!".
Why do I do it? I guess instinctively you want to do what everybody else is doing to maximise its effect (e.g. like clapping at the same cadence then everybody else etc.). But you also like to express yourself as you are most accustomed: there is no right or wrong (incidentally, my English wife does the same as me).
Would I do the same in Italian at the Scala or La Fenice?
Certainly not! I would decline the adjective properly and exclusively.
On the other hand, when I speak in Italian I say Parigi, but I say Paris (with the right pronunciation) in English or French.
Even commentators Mary Jo Heath and Siff on the NY Metropolitan Opera matinee website use brava, to single female singers and bravi (plural masculine) to males and mixed male-female groups. This is a recent development -- and an aberration. Centuries ago bravo was borrowed by the French from Italian and is used in France and thence everywhere else as an invariable cry of approval FOR THE PERFORMANCE, not the PERFORMER(S). Comments to the contrary are ALL made in neglect of Italian intonation. If you say brava to a singular female, the accent is on the first syllable and the meaning is 'good girl, nice' girl', not 'hooray'. In ITALY and FRANCE the opera house bravo should be yelled with accent on the final syllable and it's invariable. It's a FRENCH cry of approval that has gone international. Research it yourself on Google books and Amazon. Citations from the earlier 1900s and before are of the kind "bravo, Signora!".
Warning: there's a risk to be misunderstood !
Despite the amount of answers I've not seen this risk emphasized (see below).
I see at least three keys to answer to your questions: grammar, opportunity and education.
Grammar. It's quite simple, as stressed elsewhere: in Italian you should use brava for a woman, brave for more than one, bravo for a man, bravi for more than one or for male(s) and female(s) together.
Opportunity. Italian is a sharp tool, if you want. From here the possibility to be misunderstood.
Since bravo should referer to one single male, you can use to address specifically your compliment to one element of a group. After all, not all the troupes are composed with artists of the same level, neither in each performance the same artist gives his/her best.
Let's do a practical example: at one point one tenor and two sopranos enter together on the stage.
- If you say bravo you may want to address your compliment only to him, highlighting his performance over the sopranos ones.
- If you say brave the opposite, you may want to address your compliment only to the sopranos.
- If you say brava you want to emphasize one of the sopranos on the other two artists (which one is a little more tricky to understand...).
- Moreover you may see sometimes the male artist to step back and push forward the female ones
- Especially when the male is well known actor and the females are young you may listen bravo to highlight the attempt to promote the young ones
- You may again listen brave (or bravi) to state the intention to make no difference (between) among the artists.
Education. Last but not least, a compliment is always a compliment.
It doesn't really matter if you say bravo, bravò, bra-voh, prafo, blavo or whatever. So if it is clear you are not an Italian native speaker, you will not reasonably offend anyone, and your effort will be appreciated. In this case the worst (pronunciation) the better, but since you know the differences you can choose the proper tool.
Last note, how it sounds. This depends on the mood, education, sensibility of those who listen. Over the time (but out of Italy) I alternatively found it queer, funny or weird, but I finish to be used to. So an artist who travels or that performs for a non Italian public is reasonably ready to understand the compliment and not to misunderstand you... but for the public itself it depends, case by case.
It would be grammatically correct in Italian to say "bravo, soprano", since "soprano" is a masculine noun.
Likewise, it would also be possible to say "bravo" to a group of people, if you are addressing an ensemble rather than its individual members, e.g. "bravo, quartetto".
Adjective declension is concerned with the grammatical number and gender of the associated noun, not necessarily with natural genders or actual head counts.