Bugs Bunny

In Celebration of Esoteric Spectacle: Operatic Observations

This piece was originally published in September of 2013. Consider reading it alongside Laura Tokie’s opera piece, also originally published last year and available for you again on the homepage. 

The only sport I can watch with any amount of interest on television is soccer and, on a good day, basketball. But golf? No. Baseball? No. Football? No. I simply can’t. I’ve tried, and I’ve been told what I’m missing, but nothin’ doin’. I watch soccer because I played for many years. I am a minimally “educated” viewer, while I know that there are skills and abilities that are invisible to me as an uninformed baseball-watcher.

Because I study modern and contemporary art, my entire life has become a struggle to justify specialized and particularized practices and argue for their wider relevance. Mine is a precarious position, defending esoteric spectacle and informed viewing while trying to stamp out the rampant privilege and elitism that so often accompany. And visual art isn’t the only realm in which I do battle—happening to love opera doesn’t help.

I used to hate opera. I mean, they sing in shrieking voices and clomp around and get all melodramatic. I could handle “opera lite”—some Bocelli pop, some Pavarotti arias—but I left the vibrato and the breastplates to rich old people. Then I spent a semester in Florence, and had to choose an elective: it was either a studio art workshop or History of Italian Opera. Since any pedestrian on the street has as much artistic talent in her pinkie finger as I do in my entire body, I chose the academic course.

Our class learned about the different voice types and periods of Italian opera. We suffered through early Baroque pieces, and zipped through the classical and Romantic ones. We attuned our ears to the new sounds of 20th century works. All along the way we tried to note as many of the myriad variables as we could about every production—the conductor, the director, the singers, the orchestra, the sets, the costumes, the lighting, the stage. And that very little survey—that introduction to the broadest of concepts in the most superficial of ways—has made all the difference.

***

A key factor of our pleasure in art is our recognition of it and in it. When you turn the second corner on the fifth floor of The Museum of Modern Art, you’ll see a crowd clustered with smartphones and digital cameras around van Gogh’s Starry Night. Starry Night is not, in my opinion, the best painting at MoMA. It’s fantastic for many reasons, but that’s not what is compelling people to photograph it. Two years ago Placido Domingo complained of exactly this effect to Stephen Colbert, of all people —how “La donna è mobile” is “so known that the whole evening the public is sitting in the auditorium, and when it comes “Ta ta ta re ta la, pum pum…’ everybody says ‘Rigoletto!’ And it is in the fourth act.” We respond more easily to what we recognize, but we can’t recognize something without exposure to it. That anticipation of the audience for “La donna è mobile,” so rightly frustrating to Domingo, is also why Rigoletto is one of the most-performed operas worldwide.

After reading Laura Tokie’s recent piece on “What’s Opera, Doc?” , I found the short online and watched it for the first time in probably 15 years. Within seconds I was cackling out loud at the send-up of Fantasia in the opening, and, in one of many nods to Wagner, Elmer’s use of “Ride of the Valkyries”. Next I recognized Siegfried’s horn call in Bugs Bunny’s first recitative, and appreciated the parodic twisting of words and pauses to make his lines fit the tune. Then the clichéd operatic reveal of the beautiful woman (Brünnhilde on her white stallion, Grane), although this time it is the horse who has junk in the trunk. Elmer and Bugs’s duet (“Oh Brünnhilde, you’re so lovely!” “Yes, I know and I can’t help it.”) mimics hundreds of love arias whose sentimentality I’ve laughed at or cried to. And the balletic interlude had me reminiscing about my annoyance at the Act I Nutcracker duet that I watched at least five years in a row at my old dance studio—the overly aestheticized “pursuit” and “submission.” I quickly remembered another classic episode—this one a parody of Il barbiere di Siviglia—and settled in to enjoy it just as much.

I’m not really a music person: I have little experience with theory, and none with composition. I know that I’m missing a lot when I watch opera, the same way I know that the intricacies of NASCAR racing technique escape me. But, at least for me, the little work I’ve done has so far been enough, and only spurred me on toward more. I have become accustomed to the singing style; I respond to the stories and the lyrics; I critique the costumes and the design. When I read reviews by Alex Ross I know I’m not perceiving a tenth of what’s there. Yet in the end that’s exactly how I know it’s so rich: even though I’m watching and listening with insufficient eyes and ill-informed ears, I am engaged.

We are in the positions of historians as well as viewers and participants when appreciating the art-ifacts of an earlier time. Sometimes they’re wrapped in funny clothes and odd singing voices, sometimes they’re mysterious sacred objects, sometimes they employ arcane language and passé literary devices. But always they are created by humans, and always they touch something human in us. And sometimes we can’t find that something until a bunny points the way.

photo by: mt 23

It’s Opera Season

This piece was originally published in September of 2013. Consider reading it alongside Kristen Gaylord’s opera piece, also originally published last year and available for you again on the homepage. 

Before attending the opera, I held an optimistic view. I could like opera. After all, I ain’t Laura of Flatbush. I met baseline criteria:

  • Likes classical music.
  • Enjoys Shakespeare.
  • Does not fear foreign languages.
  • Enjoys getting dolled up.

I thought of myself as an unshaped mass of opera-loving potential. Thus mentally armed, I attended the opera. The experience brought me into a new self-awareness: I was delusional, naive. I thought the elements of opera would enter into my existing nucleus, connect with the substances therein and expand, like two tiny amoebae, the start of (opera) life. What a maroon!

Perhaps I’m being too hard on myself. I had it partially right. The elements of opera were going to combine with something, bub, but nothing on the list.

***

Opera hours are like dog years. I learned this thanks to subtitles. The singers performed in French, and subtitles appeared on a scoreboard-like screen above the stage. The singers went on and on, trilling up and down on the same four words that hung in the air, floating along at balcony level as if under the influence of a mad scientist’s ether.

I pined for escape: the bathroom, the bar. I remembered the last time I failed to connect at a cultural event. I sat much closer for that one, so close that I can remember how the place smelled. It took hours to get there, and then I spent hours by the pit. The other patrons looked like they lived there, camping out for days. Some wore special headsets that gave them a more intimate grasp of the underlying story, but I didn’t have that kind of money. I tried to distract myself with people watching. I nicknamed one very sunburnt gentleman Lobster Man and observed his ways. Every forty seconds he stood and saluted the action with a loud “whoo-hoo” and a raised glass of Bud.

Maybe opera has something in common with NASCAR. Maybe opera needs to have more in common with NASCAR: Airstreams and headsets and copious amounts of cheap beer. Maybe opera needs more drama in the pit. Picture it: the cellist seated in the house. At the conductor’s signal, she races to the edge and hops over the wall. Will the cello clear the clarinets? We could expand the scoreboard; make room for “trombonist cam”: will he clear his tube of spit before his cue? Maybe the problem is the words themselves. Let’s eliminate the subtitles altogether and replace them with a single earbud. Give me announcers in my ear, give me Al Michaels and John Madden calling the opera:

“Here’s our first baritone of the evening, Coach.”

“He’s one of the good ones, Al. You can tell by the way he entered the stage. Shirtless. Look at those flow-y harem pants! He’s some kind of sultan or something.”

“A priest, I think, Coach, certainly of the ruling class.”

“Let’s take another look at that entrance … Watch how he comes in from stage right and then … Zap! Slam! Powee!”

In the time it takes to sing one aria, I could’ve had the whole thing telestrated. But I wanted to connect to the opera, so I stopped pining and daydreaming. I tethered myself to the physical action onstage. The soprano reclined, her arm to her forehead, and that (to paraphrase) was all, folks.

***

The caution against smoking used to go, “it’s habit-forming,” but what does that mean, exactly? It causes you to repeat a behavior, somehow, against your better judgment, against your will. I’ve never been addicted to nicotine, but this response is more than physiological, I think. It’s the process of smoking, the way it fits with food and drink, the pleasure of a break, the calm of it, all that shapes the thinking and behavior of a smoker, causing him to temporarily forget the money wasted and the lung cancer and remember smoking fondly.

If you had a habit like that, a pleasurable habit, but without the cost or cancer, a habit that wouldn’t kill you, a habit whose only downside was that it prevented you from enjoying opera, you’d keep it, right?

In the 1970s, cartoons were not on television every day. Thus, wise and sensible children got up early on Saturdays so that they could enjoy cartoons to the fullest. Rising early, eating cereal in front of the television, I became a lover of animation. My first and true love would be Bugs Bunny. His words became my words, magic words like abraca-pocus and Walla Walla, Washington.

Bugs Bunny is the world’s most popular rabbit.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I had a favorite writer/director team, Michael Maltese and Chuck Jones. Consider the meta-cartoon “Duck Amuck”, in which Daffy is the victim of a guest animator’s sense of humor, with whom he carries on a one-sided conversation. Or how about the singing, dancing Michigan J. Frog, who ceases performing at the most inconvenient moments? What about “Boyhood Daze”, featuring the escapist imagination of Ralph Phillips?

I loved these, and other Maltese/Jones classics. But above all of their other work I placed their second opera parody, “What’s Opera, Doc?” It was the story I waited for, the one that would drive me to gather the rest of my family and make them watch it with me. It features only two character, the hunter Elmer Fudd and his clever prey, Bugs Bunny. These roles of hunter and prey typify their cartoons, but the usual settings of woods or gardens has shifted to a highly stylized landscape suitable for Wagnerian hijinks.

It begins with Elmer, a powerful Viking hunter, preparing to ‘kill the wabbit.’ Bugs, the wabbit in question, does not want to die, and so employs many a strategy. At the last, he disguises himself as a beautiful, horse-riding Viking maiden. Elmer is smitten, singing of her beauty and his desire for her. Bugs slides down the horse to him, and then they sing a duet, “Return My Love”. Maltese wrote the lyrics:

Elmer: Weturn, my wove… a wonging burns deep inside me…
Bugs: Retoyn my love I want you always beside me.
Elmer: Wove wike ours must be…
Bugs: Made fer you and fer me…
E & B : Return, won’t you return my love… for my love is yours.

This is followed by a ballet interlude. Elmer dances in tights and a shield. Bugs continues in his disguise, a bronze brassiere, miniskirt, eyeshadow, and a helmet with trailing gold braids. The ruse ends when Elmer, after ascending an extraordinary flight of stairs, finds his love in repose on a chaise lounge. Much like the soprano in the opera I attended, Bugs goes a little too far with the reposing. The helmet with the braids falls from his head and bounces down the stairs, revealing the sad truth to Elmer–his beloved is also his enemy. Elmer enacts revenge, wrecking destruction and finally, regret.

If there was a potential opera fan deep inside me, she was crushed long ago by a fat horse carrying a rabbit in drag. How could the opera compete with a ritual hour and the most desired seven minutes on television?

photo by: Steve.M~