Sunday, October 28, 2007
"What's Opera, Doc?" Deconstructed for the Layman
Many, many years ago, I sat down to write a funny guide to opera for the uninitiated which I was sure would be a big hit. As usually happens when I think of some sure-fire idea, nobody believes me, and it was a decade later before all those idiot's guides started coming out. And indeed I couldn't get anyone to publish it; the only person who wanted to do so was my friend (and father of my godson) Hank Stine, who was working for a New Age publisher at the time … but before he could do anything about it, he got sucked into the sex change world.
Recently I discovered part of the ms on an old hard drive and one of the chapters was an analysis of that great Chuck Jones cartoon, What's Opera, Doc? So, for those of you who simply have to know which Wagner opera is quoted from at every moment of this cartoon's soundtrack, I'm posting the chapter to this blog....
Now on to What’s Opera, Doc? in which the war between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny — the timeless dance of the hunter and the prey — is transported into that most exotic of realms, the world of Wagner’s monumental four-opera cycle, The Ring of the Nibelung. The plot of this thing, pretty familiar to those who have read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, much of which is ripped off from Wagner’s masterpiece of teutonic overstatement, concerns a magic ring, dwarves, dragons, dumb jocks with big swords, and the like. It also features Wotan (the German name for the god Odin, familiar to all fans of Marvel Comics’ Mighty Thor series) a god whose career as Lord of Valhalla pretty much parallels the real-life career of President Richard Nixon.
I’m sure you’re all familiar with the Bugs Bunny cartoon version. You have all enjoyed Elmer Fudd’s rousing rendition of the “Kill the Wabbit” theme and been aroused by the spectacle of Bugs Bunny sliding down a horse’s steatopygous derrière whilst wearing a brass brasière.
But how many of you realize how many Wagnerian musical themes are used in this cartoon? How many understand the many levels of irony implicit in the musical subtext? After you have examined the chart which follows, I am sure you will be convinced that director Chuck Jones’s complexity of vision is every bit the equal of, say, Ingmar Bergman’s.
I don’t believe anyone has provided such a chart before, but here it is. What I’ve done is provide a key to every musical motif used in the cartoon, along with some notes which, I am sure, will be of great use to you should you find your self at a loss for words at one of the cocktail parties described in the preceding chapter
What’s Opera, Doc? — a listener’s guide. Each segment describes briefly what we see in the cartoon, then discusses the music that we hear accompanying the visuals.
(1) Opening Credits
Orchestra tuning up.
Trombone solo: Flying Dutchman theme
Clarinet solo: Venusberg Music from
Trumpet solo: Valkyrie Theme from The Ring
(2) Thunder and Wild Weather
Flying Dutchman theme — climaxes in huge chords which are a theme from The Ring that represents, believe it or not, bondage
(3) “Be vewwy vewwy quiet I’m hunting wabbit:
just singing — not a theme from The Ring
Elmer stalking Valkyrie theme played by a muted trumpet accompanied by pizzicato strings
“Wabbit Twacks! Kill the Wabbit!”
Full blown Valkyrie theme as played inThe Ride of the Valkyries, Act III of Die Walküre
Brünnhilde’s War Cry, first heard in Act II of Die Walküre
(4) Bugs Bunny appears.
“O Mighty warrior of great fighting stock,
Might I inquire to ask, eh, What’s up, Doc?”
Siegfried’s Horn Call, first heard in the opera Siegfried, the third part of The Ring
(5) Elmer Fudd describes his Magic Helmet
What’s this? There is a magic helmet theme in The Ring, but for some reason it doesn’t appear at this juncture in the cartoon. Could Chuck Jones be telling us it’s the wrong magic helmet?
(6) Elmer Fudd demonstrates his Magic Helmet
We start off with a weird, distorted brass version of the Song of Woodbird theme from Siegfried, then we launch into a reprise of the Flying Dutchman theme. Of course, this theme doesn’t appear in The Ring, and it is perfectly okay for you to put on a huffy purist attitude at this point and become indignant at Mr. Jones’s ignorance.
(7) Elmer Fudd sees Bugs Bunny, attired as a woman, riding a horse. He thinks Bugs is the beautiful Valkyrie Brünnhilde.
The Pilgrim’s Chorus from the opera Tannhäuser is heard at this point. This is appropriate, since the pious Fudd, who has been doing his proper huntsman’s duty, is about to fall victim to his repressed libidinous desires.
(8) Bugs, still impersonating a female, leads Elmer on a wild goose chase. Both characters execute a number of tricky ballet steps, such as the fiendishly difficult fouetté and arabesque.
The Venusberg music from Tannhäuser. Wildly appropriate. This ballet music was added to the opera Tannhäuser to appease a Paris audience’s demand for a ballet in every opera’s second act. The crowd rioted when the ballet appeared the the wrong Act. Wagner never went down well with the French after that. It is supposed to represent uninhibited and decadent sexual excess, and the spectacle of a little bald midget trying to get it on with a transvestite certain qualifies as sexual excess in my book.
(9) Love Duet
Ironically, we are back to the Pilgrim’s Crusader theme.
(10) Helmet falls off — Bugs Bunny’s gender deception is revealed
Falling scale theme — could be a reference to the theme of Wotan’s spear in The Ring. The spear represents the sacredness of pacts and treaties and the fact that we hear it here could imply the breaking off of the relationship between Elmer and Bugs due to Bugs’s abrupt gender reversal.
(11) “Kill the Wabbit” A reprise of the Valkyrie theme.
(12) Bugs Bunny’s Death
Once more, a return to the Pilgrim’s Chorus. Elmer Fudd’s tragic repentance at his thoughtless slaying of Bugs Bunny is quite touching. One recalls that in the Ring cycle it is rather the opposite that takes place — the beautiful Brünnhilde, in a fit of jealous pique, causes the tragic death of Siegfried. The gender reversal is followed by a rôle reversal. Fairy, fairy interestink!
Now it can clearly be seen from all this that What’s Opera, Doc doesn’t just condense everything in the fifteen-hour Ring Cycle into a mere seven minutes.. A lot of other Wagner operas are referred to as well, often with an irony that demands considerable knowledge on the part of the audience. Tannhäuser and The Flying Dutchman are Wagner operas that bear no thematic relation to The Ring of the Nibelung, but Chuck Jones has managed to tie them all in anyway.