The massive lengths of the operas of Richard Wagner have resulted in a narrow range of films capable of adapting them, and this in a medium, like opera, devoted to the elegant combination of sound and image. Hans-Jurgen Syberberg’s 1982 film of Parsifal runs well over four hours, limiting its commercial distribution to art theaters, museums, and universities. However, when in the hands of a different sort of film artist, the Wagnerian corpus creates the opportunity for “down-conversion,” a bottling of the epic impulse into a tiny package.
The seven-minute Warner Bros. animated short, “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), Chuck Jones’ comic distillation of the Wagnerian into a vehicle for the iconic feud between Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny, is perhaps the most aggressive down-conversion in the history of cinema (only outdone, perhaps, by 1969’s Bambi vs. Godzilla). “What’s Opera, Doc” focuses on Tannhauser (1845) and Die Walkure (1870), some seven hours of musical theatrical art, and molds them into seven minutes, drawing the “Merrie Melodies” into the world of high art.
The overture of The Flying Dutchman accompanies the shadow of Elmer Fudd wearing the tarnhelm. The beginning turns Wagner’s dramatic music and Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” into comedy: the great warrior is merely the diminutive Elmer Fudd in a ridiculous helmet. The epic scope of the battle of humans and gods that is The Ring of the Nibelung is reduced to the standard plot of a Warner Bros. cartoon: “be very quiet, I’m hunting rabbits” is Fudd’s first, whispered lyric.
To accompany “The Ride of the Valkyrie,” Jones draws Elmer stabbing Bugs’ rabbit hole, repeatedly singing: “Kill the wabbit!” Bugs has the drop on Elmer: he emerges from another hole in the ground to sneak up behind his enemy. His first song is, “O mighty warrior of great fighting stock,” taken from Siegfried’s French horn motif. The rabbit finishes the song with his signature phrase, “Might I inquire to ask, eh, what’s up, Doc?”
In the next few beats, Bugs re-positions Elmer’s gender. Heretofore, Fudd has been a female Valkyrie. Bugs repeatedly sings the Siegfried horn motif, until it is no longer answered by Elmer’s Valkyrie. From this point onward, Elmer will play the role of Siegfried, now juxtaposed against the gender transformed Bugs, who appears in drag as Brunhilde. One bit of gender play morphs into another. The transformation of Wagnerian opera into “What’s Opera, Doc” is not merely an act of condensation, but also one of displacement, destabilizing the very gender organization of the operas.
Furthermore, the cartoon turns the Wagnerian corpus from tragedy to comedy, that is, in the direction of light Italian opera, the very form that Wagner was attempting to overthrow. Bugs as Brunhilde rides an enormously fat horse in front of Elmer, who is smitten with the heroine’s beauty, set to the overture of Tannhauser. After a love ballet, a pas de deux also adapted from Tannhauser, Bugs and Elmer sing a duet, “Return My Love” set to the melody of the “Pilgrim’s Chorus.” However, immediately at the conclusion of the love song, Bugs’ helmet falls off.
When Elmer realizes he has been tricked, he flies into a rage. With his “spear and magic helmet,” he summons terrible storms: “typhoons, hurricanes, and… smog!” His rage brings down lightning to destroy the “wabbit.” In a reprise of Gotterdammerung (1876), Elmer’s hatred brings down the mountains, felling Bugs in the process. Immediately, Elmer laments killing his nemesis. “Poor little bunny,” he now sings to the music from Tannhauser.
Very rarely does Elmer defeat the rabbit; Bugs’ wit typically easily outpaces Elmer’s hunting incompetence. However, here Fudd’s rage is swelled by the massive musical power of all things Wagnerian. But just as he begins carrying Bugs up to Valhalla, the rabbit reanimates and jokes in direct address: “Well, what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?” thus giving the comic short, in fact, a happy ending! The tragic scope of Wagner’s 19th century “total work of art” is delivered, but then quickly withdrawn by the Cold War-era American cartoon.
Such a collision of opera and cartoons demands a new method for understanding not only Wagner and the mass media, but much ekphrastic art. For every Hans-Jurgen Syberberg directly attempting the Wagnerian in his four-hour art cinema marathons, there are hundreds of Wagnerian engagements to be found in popular media. We just have to know to look for them; they can be found in the strangest of places.