Figaro! Figaro! Figaro?
“Figaro! Figaro! Figaro?: The Intersection of Opera and Animation
in Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies“
By Edmond Johnson
Presented on January 15, 2006
Music and the Moving Image Graduate Conference
University of California, Santa Barbara
Note from the Author: This paper, written early in my graduate studies, is presented in unrevised form, warts and all. The underlying argument—that the inclusion of operatic arias in mid-century cartoons is a remnant of a late 19th- and early 20th-century culture in which diverse genres would often share the same stage, consequently blurring the lines between so-called “high-brow” and “low-brow” culture—is intriguing, but is not fully developed within the confines of the paper. If you decide to read this paper, please take it for what it is: the work of a grad student still trying to figure out how to make a convincing argument. Honestly, I would just recommend watching the cartoons. They’re much better than anything I’ve written here.
The sound of an orchestra tuning is heard. The curtain disappears and the turbulent sounds of Richard Wagner’s overture to The Flying Dutchman fill the air as the shadow of a giant horned figure crosses the sheer rock walls of the stage set. As the shadow waves its hands in one direction and then the next, clouds suddenly materialize and thunder crashes. Slowly the lighting changes and the source of this menacing silhouette is revealed:
Clip #1: What’s Opera, Doc? (1957)
If Elmer Fudd’s occupation—“wabbit” hunting—should not come as a great surprise, the fact that his declaration to that effect was sung to the tune of Wagner’s Valkyrie leitmotif is rather more unusual. This scene, from the much-celebrated 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon short What’s Opera, Doc?, has come to be one of the most iconic works in the animated canon and also, arguably, a significant influence on on the popular conception of opera.
The work has been identified by many scholars as one the masterpieces of both the genre and of director Chuck Jones. On the surface, then, it seems ironic that such a highly-lauded cartoon is built upon the intersection—perhaps the collision—of two seemingly incompatible genres. On one side you have the cartoon short, a genre that is small in scale and inherently popular in nature. Though known to younger generations as the stuff of Saturday morning television, these six or seven minute long films originally played at movie houses as a prelude to the feature attraction, a sort of motion picture amuse-bouche. And while many of these short works have received latter-day acclaim, their creators never set out to create masterworks—they were, as Warner Bros. animators frequently stated about their creative process, just having fun. Opera, of course, is a horse of an entirely different color. Typified by works conceived on a grand scale, often with equally grand ambitions, opera is a deeply-rooted genre that has for centuries largely been the domain of the rich and elite.
Acknowledging these fundamental generic differences inevitably raises questions about the nature of the cartoon/opera relationship. Does the high-culture / low-culture divide mean that we must view What’s Opera Doc? as simple parody, a comic attack aimed at poking fun at a pompous institution? Or is there indeed a connection between these disparate traditions that is based on something more than satire and mockery? In this paper I will argue that, indeed, the presence of opera in cartoons can be viewed in terms of a larger tradition that allowed for their generally peaceful coexistence.
In the case of What’s Opera Doc?, the satirical jabs are significantly tempered by the apparent reverence taken by the animators in their portrayal of opera. The cartoon is unique in among the Warner Bros. output in that the action, with only one small (but ultimately significant) exception, is based faithfully on an operatic constructs. As musicologist and cartoon music specialist Daniel Goldmark puts it, the cartoon “draws on a complex gathering of musical and cultural conventions to construct a generalized view of the Wagernerian universe and the world of opera as a whole.” The director of the cartoon, Chuck Jones, once stated that in creating the cartoon his team had taken the fourteen hours of Wagner’s opera cycle, Der Ring des Nibelungen, and “condensed it into a six-minute picture, a chestnut stew.” This statement is not completely accurate. As Goldmark observes in a detailed chapter dedicated largely to this work, the score actually includes a significant amount of musical material from Wagner operas that are not part of the Ring cycle. All the same, Jones’ statement reveals something important about the cartoon: the animators’ impetus in creating the cartoon was not principally to mock or satirize opera, though inevitably a measure of both is inherent in the humor, but instead it was an attempt to integrate one disparate genre within the other. As Jones put it in his 1996 book Chuck Reducks: “I always felt that Bugs and Elmer were trying to do the opera right.”
While What’s Opera Doc? is the most extreme example of the operatic in the Warner Bros. canon, it is by no means alone. It is not, as one might suspect, a one-off but instead the glorious culmination of countless operatic moments that are sprinkled amongst the hundreds of Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons that led up to it. Notably, with the exception of What’s Opera Doc? and Chuck Jone’s 1950 Rossini-themed Rabbit of Seville, most of these operatic moments are found in cartoons that are not operatic in focus or subject.
A particularly interesting example is the 1947 Friz Freleng short, Back Alley Oproar. In this cartoon, Elmer Fudd’s attempts at sleep are repeatedly foiled by the noise produced in the alley outside his bedroom window by Sylvester. The over-arching gag here, of course, is that rather than whining and growling like a real-life tom cat, Sylvester’s “noise” takes the form of a series of varied musical performances. At the beginning of the cartoon, the cartoon feline sets up a music stand atop a fence and, after a few questionably intoned “La’s,” breaks into a hearty, if reckless, rendition of a portion of Largo al Factotum, the famous aria from Rossini’s Barber of Seville.
Clip #2: Back Alley Oproar (1947)
Intriguingly, Sylvester’s subsequent selections are by no means exclusively operatic. He goes on to perform several popular songs that had been used in recent Warner Bros. feature films, as well as a few Tin Pan Alley tunes dating back decades earlier. (“Some Sunday Morning” had been recently featured in the 1945 Warner Brothers’ live-action film, San Antonio, and “You never know where you’re going ‘til you get there” was Sammy Cahn number used in one of the lesser-known Busby Berkley films, Cinderella Jones. )
These popular songs are placed between the aforementioned Rossini excerpt and two additional operatic numbers. In one, Sylvester uses a large, dopey-looking cat as a decoy when Elmer arrives for a confrontation. When this new cat, who has a decidedly male appearance, opens its mouth to sing, a coloratura soprano voice emerges, singing a lyrical melody—Arthur Penn’s “Carissima.”
The cartoon’s closing gag is one of its best. In a final attempt to end his suffering by blowing up Sylvester with explosives, Elmer inadvertently kills himself at the same time. Waking haloed on a rising cloud, Elmer is briefly perplexed, but quickly concludes that he has found a solution to his problem: “At weast I can get some west and wewaxation.” Just as he reclines comfortably on his cloud, though, all of Sylvester’s nine lives surround him singing, in out-of-tune harmony, an excerpt from “Chi mi frena in tal momento,” the famous sextette from Act II of Gaetano Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.
It is striking that no significant distinction is made between how this cartoon treats its operatic and non-operatic selections. Though Sylvester’s rendition of Largo al Factotum is literally laughable, it is no worse than his rendition of any of the popular tunes. In his performances of music from both “high” and “low” culture, the cat is equally horrendous. The joke is not that Sylvester is parodying or attacking opera, but instead that he is a hopeless hack who happily performs a wide variety of material.
A similar inclusiveness can be seen in the 1955 Chuck Jones’ picture, One Froggy Morning. In this cartoon, Michigan J. Frog, lately an icon of the WB network, is discovered by a construction worker in the cornerstone of a building. Upon the surprising realization that the frog is a gifted singer, the worker does everything he can to try and exploit the frog’s talent. To his great frustration, though, the amphibian will not sing in the presence of anyone else. During the course of the film, the frog sings principally popular songs like “Hello, My Baby” and “Wild About Harry” that date from first decades of the 20th century. At an important turning point of the cartoon, though, he breaks into a professional-sounding performance in Italian of the same Rossini aria that opened Back Alley Oproar, “Largo al Factotum.”
Clip #3: “One Froggy Evening” (1955)
Of course, there’s humor implicit in having a frog perform Rossini—perhaps even more so because he does it so well—but as with Sylvester, no particular attention is called to the fact that the opera excerpt is different from any of the other musical selections. It is merely a part of the frog’s impressive repertoire.
The role of the cartoon character as versatile performer is of central importance to my argument. From fairly early in the history of Warner Bros. Cartoons the animators started to portray their characters as animated actors with lives that also existed outside of the frame. While their roles on screen would change, the underlying performer’s personality would persist. As the characters matured they seem to have gained an increasing consciousness of their own identity as entertainers. In cartoons too numerous to list, characters break the fourth wall by referencing the script, addressing the director, or pulling out their Warner Brother’s contracts to check the fine print or, in some cases, to rip them up in an attempt to quit the cartoon altogether. The Warner Bros. animators, who had found success in the 1930’s with an occasional series of cartoons that caricatured real-life Hollywood stars, suddenly had their own growing stable of in-house celebrities, and they often had them act accordingly. That the Looney Tunes actors were animated did not stop them from increasingly featuring references to their imagined off-screen lives.
Going back for a moment to What’s Opera, Doc?, it is interesting to note the one exception to its otherwise operatic narrative. In the very last moments of the cartoon, a bereft and sobbing Elmer slowly walks into the distance with the seemingly dead Bugs in his arms accompanied by passionate music from Wagner’s opera Tannhäuser. Suddenly the rabbit raises his head and, in one of the few bits of spoken dialogue in the entire work, directly addresses the audience with a question: “Well, what did you expect from an opera? A happy ending?” This three-second quip, easily overlooked within the larger context the masterful cartoon, suggests that all along the true Bugs Bunny has been underneath the operatic surface of the cartoon, a superlatively versatile actor who for the time was playing the role of a Wagnerian Wabbit, but who ultimately allowed a brief moment of his true character to come through. The implication is that What’s Opera Doc? is not just a typical Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd chase cartoon that is played out in an operatic mode, but instead a cartoon where two performers (who happen to be animated ink drawings) decided to put on an opera.
One of earliest cartoons to deal with the supposedly “off-screen” antics of cartoon characters at length also conveniently contains a notable operatic reference. Friz Freleng’s 1940 film, You Ought to be in Pictures, is extremely rare among Warner Bros. cartoons in being a mix of live action and animation. While the animators are away from the studio on their lunch break, Daffy suggests that Porky is wasting his talent in cartoons, going on to tell the pig that he knows where can get a job “in features, as Bette Davis’s leading man.” Porky is ultimately convinced and goes to meet with the real-life Looney Tunes producer Leon Schlesinger, a meeting that ends with Schlesinger tearing up the pig’s cartoon contract. Porky then goes off to the main Warner Bros. lot to pursue his career in feature films. The duplicitous Daffy, meanwhile, tries to convince Schlesinger that he’s just the duck for Porky’s old job. To demonstrate his qualifications, Daffy performs an impressive, if manic, song and dance routine to the melody of the Looney Tunes’ theme song, “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down.”
Clip #4: “You Ought to be in Pictures” (1940)
It is perhaps not surprisingly now to have heard the duck break into a forceful rendition of the now familiar bit from Rossini’s Largo al Factotum.
Why is it so easy for a these cartoon characters to seamlessly jump from moments of popular culture, like Daffy’s tap dancing routine, to an operatic excerpt like the Rossini? I would suggest that there are two principal answers to this question. The first is found in the important identification of the characters as animated performers, while the second is found in the generic interrelationships of the early 20th-century popular culture.
In portraying Bugs, Daffy, and the gang as having a sort of life outside of their films—an illusory autonomy—the animators modeled them after the real-life stars of the time. The characters were given back stories, personal histories that tell of their supposed pre-cartoon pasts. As the Looney Tunes stars found fame in the late 1930’s and early 40’s, it only makes sense that the Warner Bros. animators should have attributed to them performance backgrounds that mirrored those of their contemporary real-life counterparts. Indications be can found in many of these short films to suggest that like the flesh-and-blood stars who broke into the movies around the same time, Bugs, Daffy, and associates had long histories of performing in other mediums, most importantly vaudeville. This is explicit in the 1949 cartoon What’s Up Doc? which director Bob McKimson structures as a Bugs Bunny bio-pic that explores the rabbit’s fictional pre-cinema career. Here Bugs tells the story of his early life: he studied piano as a child—we see the young rabbit playing Liszt—and later classical ballet before going on stage as a member of the chorus. Eventually, he burns out and becomes destitute only to be rescued from obscurity by Elmer Fudd, who is identified in the cartoon as “that big vaudeville star.”
The vaudeville connection is key. As a variety genre, Vaudeville was historically inclusive of a wide range of different entertainments: from comedians to circus acts to Shakespearean actors and classically trained musicians. This same variety can be found in the Warner Bros cartoons where the characters will travel mercurially from scenes rife with lunacy to moments of serious drama and, as the case may be, sincere musical performance. In some cases, like What’s Opera, Doc?, the cartoon will highlight only one of these roles while, at others, like Back Alley Oproar, the seven-minute film will act as vaudeville review in miniature. And while the disparate elements of real-life vaudeville would be played by a variety of different performers, the particular magic of animation endows each of the Looney Tunes star with the versatility to play the entire gamut.
If the characters actions reflect the influence of vaudeville, the variety of music also reflects an important aspect of the music industry in the early 20th century. While today we see the line between “classical” and “popular” vocal music as quite distinct, this was not the case in the early decades of the century. Before the advent of electric recording and amplification in the late 1920’s, many popular singers relied on the same vocal techniques as their classical counterparts in order to be heard both on disc and in large halls. Al Jolson, whose act was firmly grounded in both minstrelsy and vaudevillian traditions, is often described as having a voice that was near-operatic in style. The constraints that early recording techniques placed on vocal style and the length of recordings, generally limited to about four minutes or less, put opera on a much closer level to popular music than what we see today. This is reflected in the record catalogs of the time. The 1924 Victor Records catalog, published towards the end of the acoustic recording era, features four different recordings of Rossini’s Largo al Factotum and six versions of Donizetti’s “Chi mi frena” sextette. Both of works were available not only on Victor’s elite “red label,” but also on their more affordable “black” label, primarily the domain of popular music.
In conclusion, the presence of these many operatic moments in the cartoons produced by the Warner Bros. studio—among others—should not been seen as instances of cultural conflict. Indeed, they represent the continuation of an earlier tradition that allowed for the elements so diverse as opera and farce to sit side-by-side, equals, just two acts from the same show.
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