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.

Kennst du den Schwan?

Fragments on Wagner’s LOHENGRIN.

Wagner’s silvery-blue “romantic opera” Lohengrin premiered at the Großherzogliches Hof-Theater in Weimar on this date in 1850.[1] Perennially popular in the succeeding century and a half, its tale of the “nameless” hero born onstage by a swan has been experienced in over two dozen productions around the world over the last two years alone. The production at the Bayreuth Festival this summer had its own knightly rescue twice-over with Yuval Sharon—the first American stage director in the festival’s history—taking over from Alvis Hermanis, and Piotr Beczała stepping in for Roberto Alagna. Lohengrin has had a generous share of rescuers throughout history, reaching back to that first performance in Weimar under Franz Liszt.


Origins of the Work

Familiar with figure of Lohengrin from at least 1841, Wagner made his first dramatic sketches for the work during a fruitful sojourn in Marienbad in 1845 for his health. (That same summer also spawned the first notions of Die Meistersinger, and Parzival was on his reading list as well.) The full score was completed on April 28, 1848, with a new transitional passage for act 3 later interpolated in 1851. The premiere was announced for 1849 in Dresden, where Wagner was then Kapellmeister of the Saxon Court. New sets were contracted, but Wagner’s participation in Dresden’s May Uprising of that year and his eventual exile in Switzerland brought those plans to naught. (Such political theatrics were apropos given that assemblies and armies are part and parcel of the dramaturgy of Lohengrin, a particular challenge for productions in the postwar era.) While the end of act 1 had been premiered in 1848 during a concert marking three hundred years of the Weimar Hofkapelle, the rest of the opera was doomed to remain unheard.


Enter Franz Liszt

Or rather enter Wagner’s entreaties to the Kapellmeister extraordinaire in Weimar. Wagner kept up an avid correspondence to convince Liszt to produce the work, a formidable challenge for such a small court theatre operation. (Weimar had, however, mounted Wagner’s Tannhäuser in May of 1849, a work of somewhat comparable spectacle.) Liszt did yeoman’s work to clear the air in the court of the whiff of Wagner’s politics, a telling effort for the work’s legacy. There were other cultural concerns to navigate. The gala performance coincided with the one hundred and first birthday of Goethe and the dedication of the Weimar memorial to Herder. The scheduling was a bold choice on Liszt’s part, but also an understandable step in his attempt to connect the “golden age” of Weimar with his own endeavors to modernize the court theatre repertory.


Some 2000 thalers and forty rehearsals later, Lohengrin bowed before its first audience, prefaced by a commemorative prologue from author-actor Franz von Dingelstedt. (It is a strange mélange of patriotism and mythology.) Wagner heard much about the performance, including the exasperating fact that it timed out at 75 minutes (!) beyond his own estimation of its length. He was particularly concerned with the declamation of the singers, especially since Lohengrin marked a considerable step forward in Wagnerian expression. The composer sent considerable notes concerning the design and staging of the work, which he later published. He himself would not see the work performed until he attended a rehearsal in Vienna in 1861.


Swan Fans

The legend of the Knight of the Swan boasts many an assiduous fan, to say the least. (Who wouldn’t want a prince coming to your rescue?) After attending a performance in 1861, the legend and the knight remained one of the stronger obsessions of King Ludwig II of Bavaria. Swan imagery is abundant in his structures, Neuschwanstein perhaps eclipsing all others. It is important to note that Ludwig’s conception of “Romanticism”—if it can even be called that—was more eclectic than the trope of the Märchenkönig would imply. He had an unshakable devotion to the legacy of Louis XIV and the Rococo (as evinced in Herrenchiemsee and Linderhof), as well as fashionable attitudes towards rusticism and Orientalism common to his era. Ludwig’s aesthetics also embraced a strongly historicist attitude, something that often exacerbated Wagner where set and costume designs were concerned, particularly with his opera. Thomas Mann was also a concerted devotee, his memories of first hearing the prelude among the most lingering in his memory.


Moment of Note

Apart from testing how long it takes for one character to cross the stage, Lohengrin boasts one of the most accomplished and sublime preludes Wagner ever wrote. A masterpiece of orchestration and structure, his program note from Zurich in 1853 describes how the piece depicts the delivery of the Holy Grail to earth by the heavenly host. At its climax, “the observer’s senses diminish; he sinks down in devout annihilation.” Can’t put it better than that.


[1] Pace the abuse of the term “music drama” with Wagner’s stage works, both the placard for the premiere and the text published in Weimar give the subtitle as “Romantische Oper in drei Akten.”