Is opera kid’s stuff? Or just silly?

A friend of mine commented on Facebook that “the bulk of [his] generation’s exposure to classical music has been through Looney Toon cartoons.”  Upon reflection, I think he’s absolutely right.

A quick search shows that listverse has already compiled the “Top Ten Uses of Classical Music in Classic Cartoons” list for us. And who do you think topped that list?

Not much of a surprise, really. “What’s Opera, Doc”, the send-up of Wagner’s ring cycle.  (Ah.  “Kill de wabbit.”  Definitely something we can thank Wagner for.  Nazism, maybe not so much.)
Here’s an excerpt from around the 2:15 mark:

When I heard that bit, I was reminded of the mini-operas for the toddler set on Nick Jr. The Wonder Pets.

It’s interesting that both of these excerpts exploit one of opera’s great flaws (to great comic effect).  When you set text to music (particularly music from the classical period), you often end up needing to repeat yourself. The phrasing practically demands it. In both of these excerpts the same line is repeated several times in progressively higher registers to indicate increased tension.  To modern ears this sounds clunky, even silly. Hey Linny, instead of singing about the phone, just PICK THE DAMN THING UP! It’s a great example of the demands of the music working directly against the demands of the theater.

This gives me some ideas for future blog posts.  I expect we’ll be seeing more of these excerpts in the weeks to come…

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  1. 1

    Wow, my daughter (and son now) watch Wonder Pets at the grandparents. At first it really annoyed me, because of what you mentioned. But now I sort of appreciate the style it uses to communicate to the youngins. So much so, that we borrowed the CD from the library. It’s a frequent request now.

  2. 2

    I used to use “What’s Opera Doc” as a teaching tool for the college music appreciation classes I taught. It was the easiest way to explain the form of Grand Opera in 6 minutes (instead of 4 hours). It is an absolute piece of genious, that little 6 minute cartoon.

    I wonder about this idea of the need to repeat oneself textually to go with music. Because certainly there is plenty of musical theater (including modern opera) that does NOT do this. It was, of course, the style in previous eras (good lord how many Handel arias have I sung that are 7 minutes long and only have 3 LINES of text????) — but did the music demand it or was that a stylistic choice, a convention? The arias were used as a vehicle for showing off the voice as an instrument, more than for progressing the plot of the opera, it would seem. Were they really TRYING to be theatrical in those moments?

  3. Brian Rosen #

    I think you’re exactly right, and I’m starting to write out a post about how later styles of opera tried to get around this repetition thing. But the more I think about it, the repetition thing may not be endemic to the music. Did Mozart do a lot of it?

    It may just be that we’ve heard the “What’s Opera Doc” so often that the silly repetition has lodged into our collective minds as that “thing that opera does.” And since most Americans have never heard an opera in a language they understand, they have no idea whether or not opera actually does that.

  4. Eph #

    I’m no expert on opera as a whole, but I don’t think Puccini repeats lines all that often. And he uses arias to advance the drama and develop characters. One of my favorite examples is “Dovunque al mondo” from Madama Butterfly. I particularly love the fact that Pinkerton interrupts his aria to offer his guest a drink (“Milk Punch, o Whisky?”)

  5. Brian Rosen #

    Eph, absolutely. Puccini has a much more modern approach to theater. Remember, Madama Butterfly is a 20th century opera (1904)! Wagner composed over half of the Ring cycle in the 1850s, before Tristan even.

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