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.