How Bugs Bunny and ‘Kill the Wabbit’ Inspired a Generation of Opera Stars
Many of the people involved in the Washington National Opera’s production of Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle say their first exposure to opera came from the same source—Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd cartoons. Photo: Warner Bros./Everett Collection
WASHINGTON—Long before she became an opera star, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop believed that Brünnhilde, the heroine in Richard Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung,” was actually named Bwünnhilde.
Only years later did she realize she thought so because Elmer Fudd can’t pronounce his R’s.
Like many other singers and crew staging the 17-hour, four-opera Wagner extravaganza at the Kennedy Center, Ms. Bishop got her first taste of opera from a cartoon rabbit and his speech-impaired nemesis.
“I could sing you the entire cartoon before I knew what opera really was,” says Ms. Bishop, who performs the part of Fricka, wife of Wotan, king of the gods.
The rabbit in question is Bugs Bunny, who, in the 1957 Warner Bros. cartoon “What’s Opera, Doc?” finds himself hunted by Elmer Fudd, in the part of the hero, Siegfried.
“Kiww the wabbit! Kiww the wabbit!” Elmer, in an ill-fitting magic helmet, sings to the urgent strains of Ride of the Valkyries as he jabs his spear into a rabbit hole.
Bugs flees, dons a breast plate and blond braids, climbs atop an obese white horse, and for two minutes and a ballet interlude, fools the smitten Elmer into thinking he is Brünnhilde.
“Oh, Bwünnhilde, you’re so wovewy,” Elmer croons.
“Yes, I know it,” Bugs answers coquettishly. “I can’t help it.”
“Those of us who didn’t freak at the sight of a rabbit in a winged helmet sliding off of the back of a fat horse—we went into opera,” says Ms. Bishop, 49, who grew up in Greenville, S.C.
It’s just one of those cases of art imitating art imitating art. Generations of people in the opera world grew up spending Saturday mornings eating breakfast cereal and watching Bugs Bunny on TV sets tuned with rabbit ears. For many, “What’s Opera, Doc?” was their first glimpse of opera and Wagner. Even if it didn’t exactly inspire their careers, it planted an ear worm that made the music recognizable once they heard the real thing.
“I had never been exposed to opera music before Bugs Bunny,” says mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton, 34, who first saw the cartoon as a middle-schooler at her grandparents’ house in Athens, Ga.
Opera has long been a staple in movies, used to evoke emotion, suggest sophistication or provide a jarring counterpoint to on-screen violence.
To help evoke emotion, opera music has been featured on the silver screen over the decades. From left, 'The Great Dictator,' 'Pretty Woman' and 'Apocalypse Now.'Photos: Everett Collection;
In “Pretty Woman,” Julia Roberts, playing a hooker with a heart of gold, tears up while watching Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata.” In “The Great Dictator,” Charlie Chaplin, in Hitlerian uniform and mustache, cavorts with a balloon-like globe to the prelude from Wagner’s “Lohengrin.” In “Apocalypse Now,” Robert Duvall, as an air cavalry commander, blares Ride of the Valkyries from helicopter loudspeakers while laying waste to a Vietnamese village.
Ms. Barton, who plays Waltraute in the Washington National Opera production, fell in love with the music of Gioachino Rossini through “Rabbit of Seville,” the 1949 Warner Bros. cartoon in which Bugs shaves Elmer with a lawn mower, massages his scalp with his hind paws and polishes his pate with a shoeshine rag.
The Ring cycle, which closes on Sunday, consists of “The Rhinegold,” “The Valkyrie,” “Siegfried” and “Twilight of the Gods.” It is a Byzantine tale of dwarves, deities, greed, a golden ring, angry wives, incest, a dragon and a lot of other operatic stuff. The work is so vast that all four operas are rarely staged at one time. The Kennedy Center’s $10 million production was a decade in the making and is the only full Ring cycle in the U.S. this year.
“What’s Opera, Doc?” features a mélange of Wagner music from the Ring, “Tannhäuser” and “The Flying Dutchman.” The tunes convey both mood and emotion, as Elmer and Bugs play out their hunter-and-quarry, wooer-and-wooed drama.
Seeing it was an eye-opening experience for 5-year-old Michael Heaston, who watched Warner Bros. cartoons in his pajamas in the family room in West Des Moines.
“Growing up in Iowa there’s not a lot of opera—I know that may come as a shock,” recalls Mr. Heaston, 37, a former pianist for the Dallas Opera and now adviser to the artistic director of the Washington National Opera. “At a very base level, that’s what I got from Looney Tunes at a very early age: I learned how to tell stories through music.”
Opera cognoscenti consider the Ring cycle the finest of Wagner’s works. Cartoon cognoscenti consider “What’s Opera, Doc?” among the finest of the Elmer vs. Bugs genre.
Mel Blanc, who gave voice to Bugs and a host of others in 1,300 Warner Bros. cartoons, used to screen the animated film during university lectures, according to his son, Noel Blanc. “What’s Opera, Doc?” is listed in the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress.
Drawings, like these by Chuck Jones, helped animators create the action for various scenes in "What's Opera, Doc?" Photos: Chuck Jones Center for Creativity;
Director Chuck Jones, according to his widow, was especially fond of the moment when Elmer, angry to discover his Teutonic love, Brünnhilde, is, in fact, a rabbit, summons storms and earthquakes that apparently kill Bugs. Elmer gently cradles the limp lagomorph, overcome with remorse for having destroyed the thing he loved most—the chase itself.
“He’s mournful,” says Ms. Barton. “He picks up the wabbit and he thinks, ‘Oh, no, I’ve actually killed it.’…This is the wonderful thing about opera. It’s the musical embodiment of the whirlwind of emotions of human beings, right?”
Wig and makeup designer Anne Ford-Coates, 37, remembers getting her first taste of Wagner while sitting on a shag carpet at the family house in Sarasota, Fla., eating Cheerios in front of the TV.
She put Looney Tunes behind her as a teen, but found herself googling “What’s Opera, Doc?” several years ago while working in Utah on her first Wagner opera.
When the Ring opened last month, her father posted a picture of Bugs and Elmer on her Facebook page for good luck.
Opera “is the greatest collaborative art form in the world, as far as I’m concerned,” says Ms. Ford-Coates. “It doesn’t have to be starchy. It’s violent and it’s dirty and it’s passionate and it’s visceral. And it also can be very funny.”
“What’s Opera, Doc?,” she says, “is completely appropriate because you can’t handle everything with absolute reverence all the time.”
That includes death scenes. Before “That’s All Folks!” brings the cartoon to a close, Bugs perks up and addresses the camera: “Well what did you expect in an opera?” he asks. “A happy ending?”
Too cool not to post on. Have a great weekend.