It’s entirely possible that your first introduction to the world’s most famous and enduring symphonic and operatic works came not from a music class but from Bugs Bunny.
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In particular, the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies cartoons — produced by Warner Bros. between the 1930s and 1960s — were known for using famous classical compositions to great comedic effect, thanks in large part to the studio’s prolific composer/arranger/music director Carl W. Stalling, who averaged one score a week for 22 years. He was a master of the musical pun, using well-known cues for an added layer of humour. Sometimes, the music would drive the action: The Rabbit of Seville is now as much a classic of its genre as the opera that inspired it.
Conductor George Daugherty even created a show out of the compositions by Stalling and his successor Milt Franklyn. Bugs Bunny at the Symphony, which has been performed all over the world, including by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, sees the original cartoons projected on a large screen with live symphony orchestra accompaniment.
"I wanted to find ways to pull people into the concert hall who didn’t normally come, and at the same time celebrate varieties of American symphonic and film music that didn’t normally get put on a concert stage," Daugherty told the New Yorker in 2015. "I had loved these cartoons as a child, and I had no idea at the time that I was listening to Wagner and Rossini and von Suppé and Smetana and Tchaikovsky and Liszt and Strauss — all of the classical composers that were borrowed from."
As the Manitoba Opera’s The Barber of Seville opens Saturday night at the Centennial Concert Hall, the Free Press looks at five times Bugs Bunny went highbrow.
Two of Johann Strauss’s most famous waltzes, Tales from the Vienna Woods and The Blue Danube, anchor this slapstick send-up of Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia. For the first waltz, Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig (assuming the role of Elmer Fudd), and Porky’s hunting dog engage in a pas de trois in which Bugs gracefully dodges death and ends up flouncing off in a baby-blue tutu. The Blue Danube, meanwhile, sees a duckling-age Daffy try to join up with a trio of baby swans, gracefully swimming to the music, but repeatedly rejected by their mother. When the babies are kidnapped by a buzzard, Daffy saves them by transforming into a P-40 Warhawk fighter aircraft, complete with the "fighting tiger" paint scheme. (It was 1943, after all.)
This one is full of musical references. Bugs Bunny is performing Franz Liszt’s dramatic Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in a concert hall, and a mouse is antagonizing him from inside the piano. At one point he answers a ringing phone. "Eh, what’s up doc? Who? Franz Liszt? Never heard of him. Wrong number." There’s a small nod to Rossini’s aria Largo al factotum from The Barber of Seville, with Bugs singing "Figaro, figaro, figaro" over a similar triad. Mouse and rabbit end up duetting on a boogie-woogie number and, when Bugs tries to blow the mouse up with a stick of dynamite, the mouse plays Taps, the solemn ceremonial bugle call. The best sight gag, though, involves an audience member obnoxiously hacking as Bugs sits down to play. The second time the cougher is heard, Bugs wordlessly pulls out a revolver and shoots him.
This short is essentially a zany, seven-minute, 31-second chase scene between Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd scored by Rossini’s famous overture from The Barber of Seville. Bugs blunders onto the stage of an amphitheatre set to show the opera, a gun-toting Fudd hot on his heels. When the curtain rises on a stunned Fudd, the quick-thinking wascally wabbit is already dressed as a barber, comb perched between his ears. Few reveals are funnier than Bugs operatically singing "How doooooo! Welcome to my shop, let me cut your mop." He puts Fudd’s bald head through increasingly ridiculous indignities, including applying a fertilizer that makes a shock of red flowers sprout up from it. The whole thing culminates in the pair getting married — with Fudd the one in drag for once — and Bugs dropping his blushing bride into a giant cake that reads "the marriage of Figaro."
Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are at it again in this romp through several of Richard Wagner’s operas. This, of course, is the magnum opus that made it almost impossible to hear Ride of the Valkyries without hearing "kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit," and gave us the famous scene featuring Bugs in drag as Brünnhilde, riding atop a fat horse. In 1992, the short became the first cartoon to be preserved in the National Film Registry at the United States Library of Congress, and is widely considered to be one of the greatest cartoons of all time.
In this one, Bugs Bunny assumes the role of a persnickety and easily flappable conductor who is to lead a symphony orchestra through Franz von Suppé’s A Morning, Noon, and Night in Vienna but is driven to distraction — and eventually madness — by an irritating fly. This is a rare Bugs Bunny cartoon in which the normally wise-cracking rabbit does not speak.
Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.