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.

A Letter from Salzburg

What’s the “Record” Seventy Years After Strauss?

This year, September 8 marks seven decades since the death of Richard Strauss. While I agree with Alex Ross and Bob Shingleton that anniversaries often lead to embarrassing surfeits of activity, this milestone carries a certain poignancy worth consideration. The copyright on Strauss’s compositions will lapse at the end of this calendar year, sending the scores into that neverland of public domain. For a composer who devoted consistent energy throughout his life in asserting his intellectual and financial rights as an artist, this is the ultimate (and literal) reversal of fortune and end of an era for one of the most lucrative musical estates of the twentieth century.

But whither “Kaufmann Strauss”? The episode is not without its resonances for the present. Despite the conventional divide between “art music” and “popular music,” the challenges that Strauss faced in the commercial side of the music industry continue across the divide. Even though the bulk of the composer’s efforts were devoted towards live performances of his works, it should never be forgotten that Strauss lived well into the era of modern media and was (to a point) an active participant. The battle for intellectual and monetary rights by musical authors and artists in an ever-expanding world of streaming services, (il)legal download platforms, and sections of the public growing incrementally averse to actually paying for music is just as relevant as it was a century ago.

It was just before this anniversary that the Internationale Richard Strauss-Gesellschaft (IRSG), in cooperation with the Richard-Strauss-Institut, the Herbert von Karajan-Institut, the Universität Mozarteum, and the Universität Salzburg, hosted the conference “Strauss on the Record: Karajan and the Legacy of Sound Materiality” in Salzburg. The joining of Strauss with another major music titan was apt. Arguably the most media-savvy of twentieth-century conductors, Herbert von Karajan’s legacy is indelibly bound up with that of Strauss as a performer and stage director, to say nothing of politics. The ten presentations between September 6 and 7 offered a stimulating range of perspectives on these topics, as can be seen from the full program book.

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Discussing a masterpiece of visual camp, or a record cover from hell. Photo by Sally Drew.

My offering for the conference discussed the place of Strauss’s operas in the catalog of Decca Records via the lens of Christof Loy’s 2011 production of Die Frau ohne Schatten for the Salzburg Festival. Collectively, the gathering illustrated the richness of the current scholarship and the potential for evolving dialogues to develop between the archive, theory, criticism, and analysis. All this was capped by a magnificent Strauss Liederabend with soprano Lavinia Dames and pianist Carson Becke revisiting a special program performed by Strauss and Elisabeth Schumann in 1922, complete with improvised transitions in the Straussian tradition. As the IRSG continues to take root in its new home in Salzburg, and with a growing network of partnerships, the exchanges between scholars of various backgrounds about Strauss and his world will likewise prosper.

On top of the glorious stresses of delivering a paper, this trip marked my first visit to the city where Strauss and Karajan both cast long shadows as major cultural figures, the former as a founding father of the annual Salzburg Festival a century ago, and the latter as the prime mover of its aesthetic and commercial growth in the postwar era. The 2019 season had ended before my arrival, but as the founders knew full well, the city and its environs offer a theatre unto themselves, acted out everywhere from its twisting alleyways to the baroque promenades of its most stately edifices. Due homage was paid Sunday at the Kollegienkirche, site of the famous 1922 production of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Das Salzburger Große Welttheater, and Schloss Leopoldskron, once the home of the director and impresario behind the Festival, Max Reinhardt. The rainy and overcast sky lent the still surroundings of the Großes Festspielhaus and Felsenreitschule an expectant atmosphere. The 2020 Festival will offer yet another occasion for celebration and reflection as to the achievements of the founders and how their past efforts persist in our living present.