Biography24 Aug 2010 09:47 am
“Be vewy quiet… I’m hunting wwabbits!”- Elmer Fudd.
“What’s up, Doc?” Elmer Fudd’s spear and magic helmet, of course! What’s Opera, Doc? the 1957 animated cartoon, features Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny through a 6:11 operatic parody of 19th century classical composer Richard Wagner’s operas, particularly The Ring Cycle and Tannhäuser. The cartoon reflects an image of opera that comes straight from Wagner–the overweight, stentorian soprano wearing horns and breastplates, shrieking rather than singing her part in a feast of noise, gongs and melodrama. Were Wagner’s operas really this over the top?
The short answer is YES. Wagner had an ego as big as his operas, and liked shaping his own public image. While he only wrote 13 operas (sorry, “music dramas”!) during his lifetime, Most of them are several hours long with massive orchestras, extremely loud combinations of instruments, epic plots, and difficult singing parts. A production of the entire Ring Cycle, which consists of four epic operas, runs approximately 14-16 hours long (depending on the performance)!
The story of The Ring Cycle comes, in a very general way, from the old Norse/Germanic legend of the Nibelungenlied (“The Song of the Dwarves”). Wagner wanted to invoke his beloved ancestral legends and put them to use to explore the relationship between love and earthly power, and themes of yearning and loss. He outfitted his mythical characters (who tend to be knights, nymphs, dwarfs and a hodgepodge of other warlike beings) in full armor, horned helmets (or wings) and with elaborate braided coiffures for his leading ladies.
Now, about the ‘fat ladies’ and the stentorian voice: Wagner made demands on his singers such as no one had ever made before and few have since. He increased the size of his orchestra to titanic proportions, and required his singers to be heard over them for longer periods than ever before; a typical Wagner opera will run well over four hours.
As if that weren’t enough, the size of a major opera hall today is perhaps three times anything Wagner ever planned for. It takes enormous strength and stamina to sing a Wagner opera, and the rare voices capable of it tend not to come on small frames. However, most Wagnerians assert that the girth of his leading ladies has been greatly exaggerated— they may have had some junk in the trunk, but they were no fatties.
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