A Magic Helmet of Bleeding Chunks; or, What Bugs and Elmer Owe to Hans Knappertsbusch

Resetting the Boom on Herrs Wagner, Jones, Maltese, Bugs, and Elmer.

The famous animated short What’s Opera, Doc?—the gold standard of Warner Brothers’ animation and my admitted favorite of all time—is conventionally billed as a compact distillation of the entirety of Richard Wagner’s mammoth four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. Those familiar with Wagner, however, recognize that it would barely pass as a Reader’s Digest reduction. The only extracts taken from the Ring proper are the “Ride of the Valkyries”from the Ring opera Die Walküre—indelibly transmuted by Elmer Fudd into the battle cry “Kill da wabbit!”—and Siegfried’s horn call from the opera Siegfried—Bugs’s innocuous statement “Oh, mighty hunter of great fighting stock!” These two examples aside, the bulk of the musical material in What’s Opera, Doc? comes from the overtures to Wagner’s earlier stage works Die fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) and Tannhäuser. (Astute listeners will also catch a brief snippet from the overture to Wagner’s Rienzi in a chase sequence.)

The more I got to know Wagner, the more I have wondered why director Chuck Jones, writer Mike Maltese, and music director Milt Franklyn lit upon these specific “bleeding chunks” of the operas as “magic helmet” fodder. Of course, the Holländer and Tannhäuser overtures were (and remain) popular concert and radio fare. They were also familiar objects of appropriation for feature film and animated short musical accompaniment. Director Friz Freleng, one Jones’s colleges at Warners, famously used the Pilgrims’ Chorus from the Tannhäuser overture in an earlier World War Two short, Herr Meets Hare, which pitted Bugs against the corpulent Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in the Black Forest. After a failed gambit to disguise himself as Hitler, Bugs returns from offscreen dressed in drag as Brünnhilde astride a horse, prompting a corresponding quick change for Goering into Brünnhilde’s paramour Siegfried, complete with pelt and helmet. The version in What’s Opera, Doc? is far more dramatic and lacks the propagandistic bite of Herr Meets Hare. Instead of Wagner’s voluptuous Venusberg music from Tannhäuser in Jones’s iteration, Bugs and Goering traipse about to the saccharine waltz from act 2 of Johann Strauss’s operetta Die Fledermaus.

In a Zoom panel on What’s Opera, Doc? sponsored by San Francisco Opera earlier this year, Chuck Jones’s grandson Craig Kausen discussed how Jones was an avid operagoer, and I would be curious to know what Wagner he (as well as Maltese) would have seen on the West Coast in the decades leading up to work on the short. A more promising and overlooked clue to the choice of excerpts in What’s Opera, Doc? exists in a famous photograph of Jones and Maltese standing in front of an animation storyboard around the time of production. Each holds an LP case in their hands. Jones has a Wagner release from London Records, while Maltese displays a disc conducted by Felix Weingartner. (In his autobiography, Jones captions the image “Director and writer about to lower the boom on Herr Wagner.”) While I have often seen this photo, I hitherto gave the case covers little attention. Given that the albums were an apparent source of inspiration, exploring their contents in detail illuminates many potent connections between recording history and the short.

Maltese’s disc was part of a collectors’ series released by Columbia Records that reissued earlier recordings by Weingartner, who died in 1942. The Wagner compilation in question carries the Columbia serial number ML 4680 (see the eBay image below for comparison). Performed by the Orchestre de la Société des concerts du Conservatoire Paris and London Philharmonic Orchestra, the selections on the record include the Rhine Journey and Funeral March from Götterdämmerung, the preludes to the third acts of both Tannhäuser and Tristan und Isolde, and the Siegfried Idyll. With the Götterdämmerung selections on this disc, one can discern a listening source Siegfried’s horn call in What’s Opera, Doc?

Turning to Jones’s disc, however, the connections increase. This 1953 release from London Records (serial number LL800, see Amazon image below) features the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Hans Knappertsbusch in three Wagner selections: the Holländer overture, the “Ride of the Valkyries,” and the Tannhäuser overture and Venusberg music. These are the same major excerpts used in What’s Opera, Doc? and in the order in which they appear. While the Warner studio orchestra performed the final score, we can assume that Jones at some point had the Knappertsbusch sound in his mind’s ear. Indeed, when listening to subsequent digital releases of the Knappertsbusch recordings, it is tempting to hear many similarities with the What’s Opera, Doc? soundtrack, particularly the prominence of bass registers in the Holländer overture and the trombone phrasing in the Pilgrims’ Chorus. (One can only conjecture what Knappertsbusch would have made of something like What’s Opera, Doc? I am sure it would have included one of his patented vulgarities.)

These are admittedly analytical straws, but the broader connection between the world of animation with the classical recording industry, which in 1957 was at the start of the stereophonic sound boom, presents a fascinating example of musical exchanges across media. I always state with pride that all the Warner shorts remain the best music appreciation class for which one could ever hope. When combined with the visuals of animation, the quotational gestures in the scores at the time of their premiere arguably imparted a pop-culture sensibility to their classical source music. At the same time, recordings were making much of the classical repertoire available to those consumers without ready access to either an opera house or concert hall. What’s Opera, Doc? shows an instance when the two conjoined to produce one of the most iconic homages of the twentieth century.

How you were, how you are: Thoughts on the new Munich Rosenkavalier

Elegance is often confused with opulence, and possibly no opera has suffered from this misconception more than Strauss and Hofmannsthal’s Der Rosenkavalier. The concocted atmosphere of the “old Vienna” of Maria Theresa in this “comedy for music” rightly conjures up delightful visions of period-piece-delight, but between idea and the stage reality, to paraphrase T. S. Eliot, lies a great shadow, often one of vacuous kitsch. (A comparable situation exists for Broadway’s golden age blockbuster My Fair Lady, which, in its film incarnation and later stage life, became an orgy of grandiose sets and extravagant Edwardian couture to the detriment of the story.) One can sense the roots of the issue already in Alfred Roller’s celebrated designs for the 1911 Dresden world premiere, which achieved the delicate balance between these two poles with their deceptively restrained spaces, even in the crowded tavern room in act 3. Subsequent derivations from the Roller models, however, acquired more literal and figurative mass. The designer himself indirectly contributed to the trend by altering the design for act 2 in 1929 for conductor Clemens Krauss and director Lothar Wallerstein. The Saal in Faninal’s city palace was opened up with inlaid glass windows and doors to reveal a sweeping staircase beyond.

The famous contractual obligation for Roller’s designs did much to stabilize Der Rosenkavalier as an recognizable artistic product, but often at the expense of the original’s freshness. Munich Strauss doyen Rudolf Hartmann later lamented how an obligatory respect for Roller’s designs endured even as more independent and imaginative solutions for staging the opera began to appear. Ironically, Hartmann himself helped to crystalize (or, as more cynical commentators might say, calcify) the tradition in 1960, with the staging of a mammoth new production to inaugurate the newly finished Grosses Festspielhaus at the Salzburg Festival with designs by Teo Otto. Similar Rococo grandeur reached North America in 1969 with the debut of Nathaniel Merrill and Robert O’Hearn’s lavish production for the new Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center, after a five-year absence from the company’s roster. It lasted in the repertory until 2013, after which it was replaced by Robert Carsen’s new staging in 2017, which embraced the period of the work’s composition, showing a pre-World War One Vienna at the height of decadence. In Munich, the announcement that the renowned and well-toured Otto Schenk/Jürgen Rose production at the Bayerische Staatsoper, first introduced in 1972, would be replaced prompted a “rescue” petition to the office of the intendant Nikolaus Bachler.

Despite such protestations, the fêted staging was finally superseded at the Staatsoper this past weekend, with a new production conducted by the house’s music director designate Vladimir Jurowski and staged by Barrie Kosky, the intendant of the Komische Oper Berlin. (The livestream is available on Arte.tv until April 19 here.) Taking a unique route between opulence and elegance, Kosky’s Der Rosenkavalier reimagines a repertory warhorse in Munich with evocative ideas. While some elements of the concept play out less successfully than others, it nevertheless achieves a unique piquancy, smiling through one eye and crying through the other.

One must first commend Jurowski’s handling of the Staatsoper orchestra in a reduced configuration necessitated by pandemic restrictions. While reduced orchestrations for Salome and Elektra were licensed through his publisher Fürstner, Strauss never sanctioned such an edition for Rosenkavalier in his lifetime. Thankfully, Eberhard Kloke’s 2019 arrangement of the score, published by Boosey and Hawkes and utilized by the Staatsoper, succeeds in its own reimagining of Strauss’s original orchestration of 100+ players down to the scale of the instrumentation used in Ariadne auf Naxos, a minimum of 43 players, maximum 50. One senses here, however, a wise move on the part of Boosey & Hawkes to keep some vestige of control and profit from the Strauss catalog after the expiration of its copyrights in 2020. Kloke also has arrangements of Salome and Elektra for reduced orchestras as well. The similarities of the Kloke Rosenkavalier arrangement to Ariadne are especially pronounced in the addition of piano and harmonium, imparting a chamber feel throughout to what has arguably always been a Mozart opera flirting with Wagnerian dress. The effect in no way diminishes the score, which still packs its wallop while never overpowering the singers, a lifelong bugbear for Strauss himself.

In Kosky’s dramaturgy, with scenic design by regular collaborator Rufus Didwiszus and costumes by Victoria Behr, the crucial motif of time dominates the stage. Time, its passage, and human reactions/resignations to it are, of course, famous elements of the Marschallin’s character, as expressed in her monologues in act 1. The primary dramatic symbols of time onstage are a series of extra-musical chiming clocks that open each act before the respective prelude. For the first, a large grandfather’s clock strikes 6 o’clock (the same hour as the Dresden premiere on Thursday, January 26, 1911) before spinning in a clockwise frenzy the mimics the music’s infamous depiction of raucous sexual congress. For act 2, a more utilitarian alarm clock mounted on the prompter’s box awakes Sophie at 8 o’clock for her fateful ceremony with Octavian and Baron Ochs. For act 3, a more whimsical cuckoo clock heralds midnight and the start of the nocturnal farce that humiliates Baron Ochs and unites Octavian and Sophie. It is the act 1 clock, however, that recurs throughout the staging. Following the prelude, the Marschallin and Octavian emerge from the case through pendulum door in a state of afterglow. The gesture is effectively inverted in the final moments of the act, when the Marschallin, left alone by Octavian to make her way towards mass, climbs inside the clock case from the rear and pensively sits on the pendulum as it swings back and forth.

The prop clock returns at the end of the opera, in conjunction with the production’s other reigning dramaturgical device, that of love in the allegorical embodiment of Cupid. The stage is not menaced by a mischievous putto, but rather a comically-antiquated winged sprite more akin to Father Time, played by Ingmar Thilo. He first appears during the Frühstuck section of act 1, which here is staged as a playful chase between the Marschallin and Octavian amid sliver topiary. As they kiss, Cupid flings a handful of silver sequin confetti into the air. He returns to observe, participate in, and trigger the stage action. Notably, Cupid plays the panpipe to summon the Marschallin’s memories of the Italian Singer, drives Octavian’s silver carriage in act 2 for the Presentation of the Rose, flings his sequins over Octavian and Sophie during their first kiss, and witnesses the final bedroom farce, staged on a miniature theater stage oriented in reverse with a nondescript auditorium upstage. In the final moments, Cupid returns seated atop the grandfather clock. He watches over the duet of Octavian and Sophie and the Marschallin’s poignant “Ja, ja” of renunciation. As lingers in front of the clock case, Octavian and Sophie reenter for their final strophe, now taking literal flight with the silver rose. Left alone after the others exit, Cupid leans over the clock face, opens the glass, and removes the minute hand, leaving the hour hand at 6. He impishly holds it aloft as the clock sinks below the stage. (The bit replaces the page Mohammad’s whimsical search for Sophie’s handkerchief in the original scenario.) Like the Marschallin in the middle of the night, it seems that love can temporarily stop time, at least as long as it wants. While the initial Cupid appearance seems heavy-handed—here is love doing want it will do—there is a “nudge-nudge” quality to the entire interpolation that grows in strength over the course of the production.

Eschewing the familiar Rosenkavalier-realism, Didwiszus’s designs pursue three distinct worlds following the production’s conception of each act as an opera in and of itself based on the dominating characters: the Marschallin, Sophie, and Octavian. (A helpful discussion of this appears in the Online-Matinee for the production.) The world of the Marschallin in act 1 takes place in shadowy chambers etched in silver, aided by Alessandro Carletti’s lighting design. Gone is the infamous bed that incensed many in 1911. Instead, anchored by an upstage wall evoking an eighteenth-century palatial salon, a kaleidoscopic sequence of spaces, defined by wall units and other properties, moves across the stage throughout the act. Unfortunately, these constant shifts occasionally upstage the action in what is an extended dialogue between the Marschallin and Ochs, though some of the tableau, such as a series of Cupid statuettes, provide for effective staging bits. The often hackneyed leveé scene takes on a new level of chaos, with characters rushing in and out of the Marschallin’s mental and emotional space. Various gestures towards earlier historical periods are also introduced amid the transitions. The aria of the Italian Singer is staged as a wistful Baroque opera flashback with costumes recalling Ernst Stern’s designs for the world premiere of Ariadne auf Naxos in 1912. (Hofmannsthal adapted the text of the Singer’s aria from Le bourgeois gentilhomme, which later became the Ariadne framing device.)

Act 2 is conceived as an elaborate gallery of paintings, a fantasy world for the virginal Sophie, complete with her brass bed and scrapbook of Octavian clippings. Kosky stages the Presentation of the Rose as the entrance of the Knight of the Rose’s elaborate silver carriage, alluding to the golden coaches of Bavaria’s Wittelsbach dynasty. More extreme is the theater configuration for the final act, which adds a metatheatrical layer to what is already elaborate “performance” to ape Ochs. Some components of the original scenario are translated with lessened effect in such a setting. Hofmannsthal’s device of the pranksters laying in wait is reinterpreted somewhat awkwardly as agents of Valzacchi and Annina dressed as doubles of Ochs. Others, however, deliver stronger results. The curtain for the mock theater is drawn during the buffoonery, hiding the upstage auditorium space from view, but at the proper moment, the panels part to reveal the black-attired Marschallin as a lone observer in the theater seats and Cupid now serving as prompter.

Marlis Petersen, once a Sophie in the previous Schenk Rosenkavalier, makes her role debut as the Marschallin with this production. Fitting her extraordinary dramatic gifts, she imbues the role with, to borrow from Roland Barthes in another context, a bittersweet punctum that vividly renders innumerable nuances of both text and music. Samantha Hankey gives a vigorous edge to Octavian while registering the character’s latent self-awareness of his impetuosity. This plays out poignantly in act 3 when Octavian realizes his relationship with the Marschallin is over. Katharina Konradi’s Sophie was something of a revelation dramatically. Like Asmik Grigorian’s Chrysothemis in Salzburg last summer, Konradi flipped a habitual swooning ingenue role into one of agency and perspicacity. More ambivalent is Christof Fischesser’s interpretation of Ochs. While exhibiting a clear command of comedic skill, particularly in the Mariandel scenes of act 1 and the duel in act 2, which is staged as a minuscule finger prick, Fischesser’s Ochs lacks something of the brusqueness that makes the character both endearing and repulsive. Strauss once described the Baron as, fittingly, Don Juan “translated into the comic,” so an impulse akin to forwardness is necessary. Johannes Martin Kränzle did yeoman’s work as a delightfully avuncular Faninal, and the remainder of the supporting roles were well filled out.

Plaudits are due to the Staatsoper for producing one of the largest operas in the repertoire in the era of social distancing without a hint of diminishment. One looks forward to seeing how the production evolves in a post-Covid landscape.