Set in medieval Germany, in a mythical realm called the Venusberg, Wagner’s Tannhäuser centers on the struggle between sacred and profane love, and the chance of redemption through (auf Deutsch) liebe.
Sending up the sacred and the profane is what animator Chuck Jones and his Warner Bros. collaborators had in mind when they created “What’s Opera, Doc?” (1957), a Merrie Melodies cartoon that pits the wily Bugs Bunny against frequent nemesis Elmer Fudd, set to excerpts from Wagner’s operas including The Flying Dutchman, Siegfried, The Ring cycle and most of all, Tannhäuser. (In a happy coincidence, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performs excerpts from Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in concerts May 31 and June 1-3, conducted by Marek Janowski.)
In yet another face-off with his longtime nemesis, Elmer Fudd embarks on a quest to “kill the wabbit.” Armed with his “spear and magic helmet,” totems of course from The Ring, Elmer encounters Bugs, who quickly dons the guise of Brünnhilde, the heroine of The Ring, introduced in Die Walküre. As Brünnhilde, Bugs rides into view on Grane, the heroine’s mythical steed, here wonderfully overstuffed, to the strains of the overture from Tannhäuser (see music cue #1 below):
Entranced, Elmer and Bugs perform an impromptu ballet, based on the Venusburg music from Tannhaüser (music cue #2).
Immediately, Elmer becomes besotted and serenades Bugs/Brünnhilde with the ballad “Return, My Love,” with lyrics by Michael Maltese (who also wrote the cartoon’s script), crafted from the Pilgrims’ Chorus in Tannhäuser. As the music swells, it turns into an over-the-top parody of a Wagnerian love duet (music cue #3).
Alas, their bliss is short-lived when Elmer accidentally unmasks the real Bugs. In vengeance, he calls on the gods to strike down his Brünnhilde in disguise. As the winds blow and lightning flashes, Bugs is felled by a thunderbolt. Elmer realizes he has killed the thing he secretly loves.
All is not lost, however. As the finale of the Tannhäuser overture rises up (music cue #4), Bugs breaks the fourth wall and asks: “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?” Happy or not, it’s an inspired finale to what many regard as the greatest cartoon of all time. The first animated short selected for the American Film Institute’s National Film Registry, “What’s Opera, Doc?” also took the No. 1 spot in a poll of animators, film historians and directors to determine the all-time greatest cartoon.
Agree? Watch and decide for yourself.