Like much of America, I made a special point of watching the 2013 Super Bowl last Sunday, and was captivated by the San Francisco 49ers' efforts to regain the lead from the Baltimore Ravens. In addition to enjoying a spirited game, I also relished the chance to watch all of the various advertisements and savor all of the disparate themes—including talking babies, astronauts, real estate agents, robots, cars, assorted animals and New Orleans voodoo. While there were no ads based directly on the opera world, watching the event reminded me of the great power of mass media in building shared experiences and symbols, and opera as an art form has been a rich source of themes for popular culture—by which I mean films, TV, radio and even more recently, video games. From Bugs Bunny to The Simpsons, from the Marx Brothers to Citizen Kane, from Pretty Lady to the cult film Diva, opera has inspired all-out parodies, fanciful plot devices, comic TV advertisements, and even works of sublime beauty—such as Ingmar Bergman's 1975 film The Magic Flute. On the whole, I think references to opera in popular culture make the job of attracting and engaging an audience easier, so long as they don't consistently reinforce the same set of negative stereotypes (think "fat soprano wearing blonde braids and brass breast-plates") in perpetuity.
Since many TV shows and cartoons rely on a repeated context and a set of characters, they need a set of themes on which to improvise. The opera world has contributed some positive themes to work with, including the following:
- Opera incorporates beautiful music and singing into a complete theatrical experience
- Opera represents an opportunity to experience genuine glamour – onstage and off – in a "Casual Friday" world
- Opera houses as buildings often are stunning architecturally, and make great backdrops
- Opera attracts people who are really passionate about the performing arts and this art form
Opera also provides a further set of stereotypes, some of which are comic, and some of which are downright negative, including:
- Opera involves horns (the kind you wear, not play) – inspired, of course, by Wagner's Ring Cycle
- Opera singers can break glass with their voice alone
- In any given opera performance, some portion of the audience would really rather be somewhere else
- Plus, there is a strange perceived link between opera and stalking (presumably the downside of a passionate fan base)
For some time now, I have been enjoying collecting references to opera in popular culture, and I felt compelled to share a list of my top 14 memorable moments:
1. Best opera reference of all time. The 1957 cartoon What's Opera, Doc? was directed by Chuck Jones for Warner Brothers and remains fresh more than fifty years later. In addition to the usual Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd conflict, the cartoon includes music from both Wagner's Ring cycle and his opera Tannhäuser. This cartoon has reinforced the association between opera and Viking helmets for decades, and although Bugs Bunny (in drag as Brünnhilde) is depicted as svelte, Bugs' horse was deliberately given grandly operatic weight. (It may be the heaviest horse I have ever seen). I particularly relish the setting of Elmer Fudd singing "Kill da wabbit" to the music from the Ride of the Valkyries.
2. Most devoted opera fan. Werner Herzog's 1982 film Fitzcarraldo builds on the theme of the most devoted (and mentally unbalanced) opera fan. Loosely based on a true story, Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, played by Klaus Kinski, is determined to make a fortune in the rubber business so that he can build an opera house. You have to admit it's a better rationale for a "get rich" scheme than many. Unfortunately, the only available parcel of land is inaccessible from the river, so Fitzgerald decides to haul a 300-ton steamer up over the mountain to access another tributary of the Amazon. Still, you can only admire the monomania of the character, and his devotion to opera – probably only second to Wagner's real-life obsession with the construction of his opera house in Bayreuth. Here's the trailer for the film, which includes some of the most memorable moments and visual elements:
3. Best visual reference to an opera house. Whether contemporary in style such as the Winspear Opera House, a Beaux-Arts style such as San Francisco's War Memorial Opera House, or European "jewel box" theaters; opera houses are often architecturally stunning and make great settings. Andrew Lloyd Webber's The Phantom of the Opera incorporates a memorable scene of the Phantom in a boat leading his love interest, Christine, to his secret hideaway by way of an underground lake beneath the Paris opera house. By the way, there really is some historical basis of fact for the lake idea, as the original construction of the foundation of this opera house was extremely difficult due to unusually high groundwater levels.
4. Most unusual setting for an opera. In an earlier Off the Cuff, I made reference to opera companies performing in nontraditional locations. My favorite setting for opera music (admittedly, pre-recorded) is Caruso singing from the gramophone on a boat on the Amazon river, again from Fitzcarraldo.
For an honorable mention, Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film Apocalyse Now powerfully weaves together a helicopter attack in Vietnam with the "Ride of the Valkyries."
5. Most important opera singer as a plot device. Opera plays a pivotal role in Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece, Citizen Kane. In the film, Kane has an affair with a young singer named Susan Alexander; to satisfy his own ego, he forces a career on her that she neither wants nor deserves. Susan's disastrous performance on stage, and the unfiltered reaction of the stage hands above is shown in this clip:
Honorable Mention: In the Steven Spielberg film Tintin, the opera singer Bianca Castafiore sings at a private party for various dignitaries. Her powerful voice breaks a display case (made of bullet-proof glass, no less!) showcasing a model ship containing an important scroll, allowing that scroll to be stolen by Tintin's rivals.
6. Best opera slapstick routine. The Three Stooges are hysterical in the episode "Micro-Phonies," making great use of lip synching at a private party.
7. Best opera reference in a contemporary cartoon. In one episode of The Simpsons, "Homer of Seville," Homer discovers that, following an accident, he has a fabulous singing voice. The plot gag is that he only has a great voice if he sings while lying down, creating any number of comic moments as he is shown singing in different operas. As an added bonus, this particular cartoon also includes a stalker, who pursues Homer.
8. Best commercial – comic. YouTube is replete with opera parodies and commercials. My favorite is the JG Wentworth ad for "structured settlements," complete with subtitles. Naturally, it includes a series of singers wearing Wagnerian Viking helmets and the gag is sustained very well. Let's face it; if there was ever a composer who would have benefitted from regular cash, rather than a big lump sum, it was definitely Wagner.
9. Best commercial – (more) serious. My former employer, the consulting and outsourcing firm Accenture, developed a TV ad incorporating a male executive reluctantly watching an opera with this wife. While the performance was taking place, the backseat supertitle screens began a series of messages to him describing how he could improve his business (we couldn't find a video online for that). An honorable mention: British Airways ran a novel TV ad incorporating the duet from Delibes' Lakme.
10. Best pop culture reference to another work of popular culture. In one point in the Simpson's episode noted above, "Homer of Seville," the "camera" pans up to stagehands watching Homer's performance – in a direct reference to the clip shown above for Citizen Kane. Homer Simpson may be anti-intellectual, but The Simpsons series is full of opera-related characters, references and plot elements, and Homer's hometown of Springfield even boasts its own opera house.
11. Most creative opera reference. The Fox network TV series House stars Hugh Laurie as an eccentric, misanthropic, prickly, insubordinate (I could go on) but utterly brilliant doctor who spots clues to medical situations that are missed by everyone else. In the "Autopsy" episode from season two, the plot incorporates "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot. Here's how one writer analyzed the rich metaphorical link between the opera and the TV show. If you buy the whole argument, there are multiple links (and motifs) connecting this particular aria and the script that would make even Wagner proud!
12. Best reinterpretation of a famous aria. In the world of radio shows, Garrison Keillor's Prairie Home Companion features a 2010 comic sketch with Susan Graham (by the way, making her Dallas Opera debut in April in The Aspern Papers) and Garrison Keillor playing the hard-boiled detective Guy Noir. Susan's character is a mezzo-soprano who is jealous of the attention sopranos receive – not to mention their chance to sing more interesting roles. She hires Guy Noir to drug the soprano in Puccini's Madama Butterfly with a muscle relaxant, lock up the General Director in his office and cut the phone line (thanks a bunch, Guy), and allow Susan's character to appear on stage as Cio-cio-san. Being a mezzo, though, she has to sing the famous aria "Un bel di" in D-flat, rather than G-flat. Great singer and great sport that she is, Susan Graham gamely sings the aria down a perfect fourth! This sketch will bring a smile to any opera lover's face.
13. The missed opportunity. In the 1993 film Groundhog Day, the main character played by Bill Murray is mysteriously condemned to live the same day over and over. I feel quite certain that Bill Murray's character would have accelerated his path towards self-understanding, redemption and release from this punishment if his repeated day had included a really bad performance of Puccini's La bohème in addition to the painful situations repeated in the film – which include an unwelcome meeting with a high school classmate, now an obnoxious life insurance agent.
14. Most Glamorous Portrayal of an Opera Singer. Opera is a glamorous and beautiful art form, and the 1981 cult film Diva starring Wilhelmenia Higgins Fernandez, shows an opera singer in a very attractive light. By the way, this opera, too, incorporates a stalking theme – the dark side of admiration of the art form and its remarkable singers. Here's a clip of Fernandez singing the stunning aria Ebben? Ne andrò lontana from Catalani's opera La Wally:
In writing this piece, I am struck by how many references there are in popular culture to opera, and how the Internet has facilitated ever greater numbers of these linkages. On balance, I think that popularization of the operatic art form, even through pop-culture references that are blatant stereotypes, plants a seed that opera leaders can harvest in future seasons. The number one reference, by far, from my personal survey is the image of those Viking helmets from the Ring cycle, sometimes accompanied by Valkyries music, and possibly followed by the famous quote "It ain't over until the fat lady sings" (which, by the way, some sources believe first appeared in The Dallas Morning News in 1976). Even as recently as last Sunday during the Super Bowl, one of the announcers made reference to this quote.
I am sure that readers of this column have their own favorites, and I encourage them to share their ideas in the comments box below. Please join The Dallas Opera, too, for our spring season in April featuring Puccini's Turandot and Susan Graham making her long-awaited Dallas Opera debut in Dominick Argento's The Aspern Papers.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column "Off the Cuff" appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Here is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2012 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"