Opera has a funny way of working its way into everyday life. And whether you’re an opera-goer or not you’ve probably seen it referenced in popular media.
All the film buffs out there saw Charlie Chaplin walk around to Richard Wagner’s “Lohengrin” in The Great Dictator. The more modern film-goer would know Ride of the Valkyries from Apocalypse Now. Or they may remember Julia Roberts tearing up when Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” plays in Pretty Woman.
Opera is even present in everyday commercials.
You’ve probably seen those J.G. Wentworth commercials with the Viking and chorus of people singing “Call J.G. Wentworth” inspired by Waner’s “Ring Cycle”.
Most people don’t think of opera being funny but it sure does show up in a lot of comedies.
The Three Stooges lip sync opera in their episode titled “Micro-phonies” and in the episode “Homer of Seville” Homer Simpson discovers he has a great singing voice making him a opera star. But he can only sing if he is laying down.
The most influential opera reference has to be the 1957 cartoon What’s Opera, Doc?
In the cartoon Bugs Bunny escapes from Elmer Fudd by acting out parts of Wagner’s Ring Cycle and Tannhäuser.
In the cartoon Elmer chases a Brünnhilde like bugs around singing “Kiww the wabbit, Kiww the wabbit!” to the tune of Ride of the Valkeries. Eventually Bugs tricks Elmer into thinking he is Brünnhilde. Causing Elmer to say, “Oh, Bwünnhilde, you’re so wovewy.”
Of course Bugs turns the table on Elmer and the chase continues.
But What’s Opera, Doc? was something much more important than just a silly cartoon. It was an inspiration to a generation of performers.
In his Wall Street Journal article Michael M. Phillips lists many opera singers and how they were influenced by Bugs and Elmer.
Singer and teacher Elizabeth Bishop had no idea that Bwünnhilde was actually called Brünnhilde because she knew her from Elmer Fudd.
“I could sing you the entire cartoon before I knew what opera really was,” Bishop said in the article.
The cartoon didn’t explain what this art form was or immediately hook kids. Most kids chuckled and went on to the next episode. But for a few a little exposure was all they needed.
“Those of us who didn’t freak at the sight of a rabbit in a winged helmet sliding off of the back of a fat horse—we went into opera,” Bishop said.
For most people opera is a distant form of theater where people sing too much. But the small exposures that people get from cartoons or movies make it very real and more relevant.
Fans and regular people will both always remember Ride of the Valkyries. And thanks to the JG Wentworth commercials people will always think opera and Vikings go hand in hand.
No matter how misguided they are, at least people have some idea of what opera is. And opera has references like What’s Opera, Doc? to thank.
In the same article artistic director of the Washington National Opera Michael Heaston said, “Growing up in Iowa there’s not a lot of opera—I know that may come as a shock,… At a very base level, that’s what I got from Looney Tunes at a very early age: I learned how to tell stories through music.”
Some people saw the Warner Bros. cartoon and were touched by it without even knowing about. Wig and makeup designer Anne Ford-Coates first saw the cartoon while sitting on a shag carpet eating cheerios. Years later when she worked on her first Wagner opera she found herself looking up What’s Opera, Doc? and her father posted a picture of Bugs and Elmer on her Facebook page the day her show opened.
Of course some people may say opera doesn’t belong somewhere like a commercial or a cartoon. But at the end of the day the more people who are exposed to this performing art the better.
Ford-Coates said, opera “is the greatest collaborative art form in the world, as far as I’m concerned,” says Ms. Ford-Coates. “It doesn’t have to be starchy. It’s violent and it’s dirty and it’s passionate and it’s visceral. And it also can be very funny.”
Who knows when or if the people listed in the article would have been exposed to opera if it weren’t for Bugs and Elmer? And if something is too serious to be put out its element then there is no chance it will grow.
“What’s Opera, Doc?,” Ford Coates said, “is completely appropriate because you can’t handle everything with absolute reverence all the time.”
If something can be treated irrelevantly then it becomes self-aware. Just look at the end of the Looney Tunes cartoon for proof. As bugs lays dying in Elmer’s arms he turns to the camera and says, “Well what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”
When did you first experience this art form? How did it affect you? Comment below and let us know!