Even today, the most serious gray-haired music lover, sitting in the world’s most august concert halls, may be listening to the timeless refrains of Rossini or Wagner only to have the phrase “Kill the Wabbit!” come to mind.
Conductor George Daugherty has embraced this meld of classical knowledge and pop-culture conditioning and celebrates it in his “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony.” Its first tour, in 1990, was such a success that it spawned, as most successes in Hollywood do, a sequel.
“Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II” comes to Wolf Trap on Thursday and Friday, with Daugherty conducting the National Symphony Orchestra.
In its honor, we pause to hail the greatest uses of classical music by Warner Bros. cartoons (incorporating a couple from Tom and Jerry over at MGM that are often part of the program).
Not all the cartoons listed here are part of “Bugs Bunny at the Symphony II,” which screens the cartoons as the symphony plays.
“What’s Opera, Doc?,” a 1957 short directed by Chuck Jones, is, according to some polls, the greatest cartoon ever made. Largely using themes from Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle, it begins with Elmer Fudd in a Viking helmet instead of a hunting hat, singing “Kill the wabbit!” to the tune of “Ride of the Valkyries.” The wily Bugs Bunny tries to save himself disguised as the bewitching Brunnhilde. Spoiler alert: It’s one of the few Bugs cartoons where the hunter is victorious. Bugs lifts his head up at the end as he’s carried off, saying, “Well what did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?”
“Long-Haired Hare,” released in 1949, directed by Jones, begins with an opera singer’s practice, which is interrupted by ditties sung by Bugs Bunny nearby, accompanying himself on banjo, harp and finally tuba. When the singer responds violently, Bugs sabotages his concert at the Hollywood Bowl, eventually appearing in drag as a bobby-soxed autograph hunter before becoming the maestro, cutting the figure of Leopold Stokowski. In that position, he makes the singer keep a high note so long that he changes many colors before the amphitheater collapses.
“Pigs in a Polka,” a Merrie Melodies cartoon from 1943 by Friz Freleng, retells the Three Little Pigs tale to Brahms’s Hungarian Dances, Nos. 5, 7, 6 and 17, in that order. The Big Bad Wolf pretends at one point to be a gypsy dancer, and later, a poor violinist-beggar seeking shelter. He’s not really playing the violin, though, just a record on a player hidden under his clothes and tied to his back. When one of the pigs discovers the record, he flips it, and the wolf begins involuntarily dancing. Oscar-nominated as best animated short.