Tuesday, 29 August 2006

What’s Opera, Doc?

Filed under: Music — Michael @ 21:51

Well, it is more than just the music.
As anyone from my generation will know, this post shares its title with a Warner Bros. cartoon. The cartoon, from 1957, is a spoof of Wagner’s “Ring” operas. It was directed by Chuck Jones and stars Elmer Fudd (singing “Kill the Wabbit” to the tune of “The Ride of the Walküres”) and Bugs Bunny (in drag, of course, as Brünhilde). I am pretty sure that this cartoon was my first exposure to opera. As I child in the 1960’s I spent a fair amount of time watching cartoons on TV and must have seen “What’s Opera, Doc?” dozens of times. However, as good as it was, it didn’t trigger an interest in other operas.
As the years passed I discovered concert music but the few times I had tried listening to opera recordings I had been, well, underwhelmed. By the late 1970’s I had traded the TV for the Camera One, a movie theater in my home town that showed foreign and classic film. In 1975, Ingmar Bergman filmed his version of the Mozart opera “The Magic Flute” (“Trollflöjten” in Swedish, original German title “Die Zauberflöte”). By chance, I saw “The Magic Flute” and was enchanted by it. Here was an opera for the eyes and ears with wonderful sets and beautiful music. I didn’t understand the lyrics (it was sung in Swedish but I wouldn’t have understood it any better in the original German) but the film had subtitles and I could kind of follow the story. Wow, great music, cool to look at and a story. Maybe this opera stuff can be OK.
Well, I tried listening to other operas (“Turandot” and “Carmen” come to mind) but I only had ears for “Die Zauberflöte”. Time passed and records turned into CDs. One of the first CDs I bought was, you guessed it, “Die Zauberflöte” (Neville Marriner conducting, Francisco Araiza as Tamino, Kiri Te Kanawa as Pamina—still have it, still one of my favorite recordings of the opera).
In the mid-nineties, my wife and I moved to Germany. How that relates to this story is that we learned German. Now I can actually understand the words! I rediscovered “Die Zauberflöte” all over again. And I wanted more. Hey, didn’t Mozart write another German-language opera? So, off to the music shop for “Die Enführung aus dem Serail”. OK, not as good as “Die Zauberflöte” but good. Really good.
And then there are DVDs. Of course, I bought Bergman’s “The Magic Flute” but I also bought every version of these two Mozart operas I could find. And my wife and I are always on the lookout for live performances of “Die Zauberflöte”. We have seen at least six productions (seven if you count the marionettes) in venues all over Germany.
The point I am trying to make is that in order to appreciate and enjoy opera you have to have at least some experience with the whole package. That means knowledge of the story (however implausible it may be) and a sense of the visual aspect, preferably from a live performance.


  1. Opera is based on the spoken word, like stage plays, but sung using music that one associates normally with orchestras. Trying to put the two (dialog plus orchestra music) together in one’s mind can be difficult until one learns about “the whole package”. When I hear an opera for the first time, it sounds like caterwalling to me. It’s only after learning something about the story and dialog (libretto) and hearing it a few times that I can listen with pleasure. And I’ve been willing to overcome the foreignness of a few operas because of the infection of your enthusiasm for learning about the genre. Thank you!

    Comment by blackcat — Thursday, 31 August 2006 @ 14:57

  2. And then there’s the pure bliss of listening to Michael Bolton singing opera. Yes, that Michael Bolton. I may lack your distinction, but I know what I like. Josh Grobin. And Adrea Bocceli. And Il Divo. To opera purists, this is probably considered pop music. A live performance would likely be lost on me, as my eyes tend to roll back in my head when I listen. And perhaps I don’t have the attention span to follow a plot line, much less understand a foreign language. All I know is this music grabbed me in my heart the first time I heard it and has yet to let me go.

    With deep love,

    Comment by pjwyatt — Monday, 4 September 2006 @ 14:41

  3. PJ,
    Thanks for your post. Heaven forbid that I should ever become an “opera purist”! I think that it is unfortunate that opera has become considered a kind of “highbrow” entertainment. When most of the operas that today we hold in such great esteem were new, people went to the opera with the same expectations as someone going to “Cats” or “Starliner Express” do today-to see high-tech special effects, elaborate costumes, a story, music, dance.
    So, pj, your Michael Bolton concert is not really so different from opera. And besides, there are only two kinds of music. Good music and bad music. We each listen to good music.

    Comment by Michael — Monday, 4 September 2006 @ 19:54

  4. Now and then I’ve thought that the best way to present operas like Tristan and the Ring would be via animation (set to superb sung performances, of course). Animation can supply the visual fantasy and magical elements of these works.

    But if such a film were to be made, I’d hope the producers would include “What’s Opera, Doc” as a featurette before or after.

    Finally, no look at the “lighter side” of Wagner would be complete without mentioning Anna Russell’s immortal “Ring” analysis. (“The Rhinemaidens — you remember them?”)

    Comment by bcoppola — Wednesday, 28 March 2007 @ 15:12

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