You Can Do That on Television

Wednesday, July 20, 2011 - 03:09 PM

After a stellar cello solo, audiences at the Caramoor production of Rossini's Guillaume Tell last week began to nod, sigh and chuckle in recognition of the overture's two famous themes: the flute and english horn duet Ranz des Vaches ("Call to the Cows")—famous for evoking daybreak in numerous cartoons—and the rousing cavalry charge of a finale, noted for its use as the theme music to the Lone Ranger.

In fact, for an opera rarely performed due to the demands it places on singers and orchestra, it's remarkable that the William Tell Overture has survived as a separate entity from the opera it prefaces. Beyond that, however, is a remarkable number of operatic references on the small screen. Sure, variety shows like the Bell Telephone Hour and the Ed Sullivan Show put some of the century's reigning singers in the spotlight, but there's something even more pervasive about the more subtle integration of high and pop culture. My top ten incidents of opera on TV are below, but I know there are hundreds of other references. So tell me, what are your favorite opera references on television? Leave your picks in the comments below.


10. Seinfeld, "The Opera" (Pagliacci)

Sitcoms often feature an opera outing, but it apparently took a sitcom about nothing to take it to the next level and have the opera's plot reflected in the episode storyline. Kramer has tickets for Pagliacci and invites everyone—including Elaine who is dating the violent "Crazy" Joe Davola. Elaine discovers, however, that "Crazy" Joe has an obsessive fixation on her. In a confrontation Joe calls her "Nedda" and accuses her of cheating. Elaine ends the relationship and we see Joe dressing in white clown makeup while listening to "Vesti la giubba." It gets more perverse from there.

9. Robot Chicken, "Le Wrath di Khan" (Original)

Actor and comedian Seth Green's stop-motion sketch show (curated, it seems, entirely for those with short attention spans) manages to squeeze a fair number of lampoons into each episode. Hard to stand out in such a spread, but the 100 seconds that sum up Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, in Italian and with an original score, are some of the show's finest. And considering how fanatical both Trekkies and operaphiles are about their respective artistic obsessions, it's only surprising the two genres hadn't merged sooner.


8. Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego? (The Abduction from the Seraglio)

Carmen Sandiego remains an icon for Gen X- and Y-ers, particularly its initial show on PBS and its catchy theme song performed by Rockapella (fun fact: Rockapella member Sean Altman is married to soprano Inna Dukach). An ensuing animated series, however, took to a full orchestra with a theme song set to "Singt dem grossen Bassa Lieder" from The Abduction from the Seraglio. Considering that Carmen Sandiego stole everything from the salt from the Dead Sea to the Sistine Chapel's ceiling, it's only fitting that her second theme song would be cribbed from one of the world's greatest composers.

7. Saturday Night Live, Operaman (Various/Original)

Arguably, Adam Sandler's career took off thanks to his numerous appearances on Weekend Update—the birthplace of the "Hanukkah Song." One of Sandler's most entertaining characters, however, was the handkerchief-wielding, cape-wearing Operaman. Somewhere between Verdi and Arthur Sullivan, Operaman sang about the current social and political events of the day with witty lyrics like: "Amy Fisher, Buttafuoco, El-knock-oh, el-shoot-oh, In Jail-oh, no bail-oh, Senora, you're a whore-ah!" Occasionally, the melodies were cribbed directly from operas like Il Trovatore (and yes, that is Glenn Close).

6. The Three Stooges, "Micro-Phonies" (Lucia di Lammermoor)

Yes, technically they were short films, but the Three Stooges thrived thanks in no small part to television. Sadly, Curly suffered the first of a series of small strokes and was not at the top of his game when filming "Micro-Phonies," but that doesn't stop him—dressed as a woman—from performing the Sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor, along with Moe and Larry, posing as the actual singers. (Those who know the antics of the Stooges will know that it's best to not ask how this situation came to pass…though those who know the antics of the Stooges probably also know this particular episode).

5. The Ren & Stimpy Show (Too Many to Name)

Much in the way that prior generations had their first exposure to classical music thanks to Bugs Bunny, folks of a certain age heard some of their first merry melodies thanks to the crude, crazy and obscenely delightful Nickelodeon cartoon The Ren & Stimpy show, featuring the Felix-and-Oscar-like pairing of a dim-witted cat (Stimpy) and anxiety-laden chihuahua (Ren). Though the underscoring was instrumental and nonvocal, that didn't stop creators from including references to La Gioconda, Prince Igor, Carmen, The Flying Dutchman, Die Fledermaus, Barber of Seville, Il Trovatore and far too many more to enumerate. That kids who watched the show 20 years ago still remember the music, however, is a testament to its effective use.


4. The Muppet Show and Sesame Street (Various)

Even though Johnny Carson was no slouch in the comedic area, leading divas and divos appearing on the Tonight Show was one thing; but appearing on either The Muppet Show or Sesame Street was a horse of a different color. The latter, geared towards young children, balanced comedy (such as Marilyn Horne, decked out as Amneris, singing the "Cookie Song") with education (like Renée Fleming crooning a tune about counting to four to the melody of "Caro Nome"). Plácido Domingo even had his own recurring alter ego, Plácido Flamingo. The Muppet Show, however, catered to multiple generations of tastes, which accounts for why seeing Beverly Sills battle it out with Miss Piggy is uproarious at any age. As opera became increasingly viewed as an elite art form, here was a chance for singers to let their hair down and show they had no hangups.

3. Gilligan's Island, "The Producer" (Carmen, Les Contes d'Hoffmann)

My family is far from a group of Gilligan fans (if you can make a radio out of coconuts, why can't you patch up the hole in the S.S. Minnow?), but we can all sing Polonius's Act I, Scene 3 monologue to the tune of Bizet's "Vôtre toast" thanks to that cast of castaways. In the third season, they band together to put on a musical based on Hamlet to impress a visiting Broadway producer, and use for music the aforementioned Toreador Song, the Habanera and, from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, the Barcarolle. Just try listening to the original without substituting in the lyric "Hamlet, Hamlet, do be a lamblet."

2. The Simpsons,"Cape Feare," "The Italian Bob," "Homer of Seville"—among others (H.M.S. Pinafore, Pagliacci, La bohème, Don Giovanni)

After 22 seasons (and counting), The Simpsons is bound to make a few opera references here and there. What's always pleasantly surprising, however, is their level of astuteness and intelligence. Three hallmarks: In "Cape Feare," Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammer, who played an opera fanatic on Cheers and its spinoff, Frasier) makes one of his many attempts to kill Bart Simpson. Trapped on a houseboat floating downriver, Bart buys time by making his last request that Bob sing the entire score from H.M.S. Pinafore. By the time Grammer sings "For He Is an Englishman," the boat runs aground.

In "The Italian Bob," Grammer once again guest stars as a seemingly-reformed would-be murderer, now a family man, the mayor of a small Italian town (Salsiccia, or "sausage") and once again a heck of a performer when he sings "Vesti la giubba" before—you guessed it—trying to kill Bart. "Homer of Seville" turns the talent onto Homer himself, who gains the ability to sing following back surgery. He embarks on a performance career at the Springfield Opera House and telling guest star Plácido Domingo (playing himself) that, "…Of the three tenors, you're my second favorite. No wait, I forgot about that other guy, sorry you're third."

1. Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies "The Rabbit of Seville" and "What's Opera, Doc?" (The Barber of Seville/Tannhäuser, The Flying Dutchman, Die Walkure)

No great surprise here—"What's Opera, Doc?" was voted the No. 1 greatest cartoon of all time by 1000 members of the animation field—and for good reason. This short has been consistently shown and adored over the last 54 years and rivals the original Ring Cycle for the most iconic use of the Ride of the Valkyries. The Overture to Tannhäuser gets its own fair share of playtime (and lyrics) and Bugs Bunny's final quip—"Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?"—may be the truest words ever spoken about the genre. We would be remiss, however, to not also give proper due to "The Rabbit of Seville," which features an actual production of Rossini's Barber and once again gives unforgettable lyrics to an instrumental overture.


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Comments [19]

John from Verona, NJ

Because it's fun, Len. As someone who's had experience working (read raising money) as an arts administrator and an educator at all levels, I can tell you if the audience isn't having a good time - along with the performers - you are on your way to being a cherished albeit irrelevant memory.

Ensembles like the NY Phil seem to be getting the picture with programs like their "Summertime Classics" which are basically band/pops concerts held in air-conditioned halls. I only hope it's not too late. Hello, City Opera?

Good for you, Julie K! "Hi, ho, Silver! Away!!"

Jul. 22 2011 12:13 PM

"Neither a borr'wer, nor a lender be,
Do not forget -- stay out of debt
There's just one other thing
You ought to do --
To thine own self be true!"

Jul. 21 2011 06:59 PM
Julie K. from New Jersey

Because for some of us of a certain age, our first exposure to the world of classical music was courtesy of some of those old Warner Brothers cartoons. Without them, I'd not have heard (until much later, if at all) Liszt, Wagner, Rossini, and so many more...and have an appreciation of them so early in my life to boot.

Pointless? I don't think so.

Jul. 21 2011 12:50 PM
Len Goldenson from New York

Why do you feel you have to pander to people who don't like or care about classical music with pointless blog items like this?

Jul. 21 2011 11:31 AM
John Palatucci from Verona, NJ

Speaking of Bugs and the WB crew, let's not forget "Hair-Brained Hare" in which the wascally wabbit does effective battle with the pompous tenor Giovanni Jones after the divo smashes Bugs' banjo ("Of course you know this means war"). Comes the concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Bugs appears as "Leopold" (Stokowski), snaps the his conductor's baton in twain (a not so thinly veiled tweaking of Disney's Fantasia nose) and proceeds to wreck havoc with Giovanni's performance of "largo al factotum," Too marvelous for words. "Ain't I a stink-ah?"

Jul. 21 2011 11:22 AM
Chris Hawkins from Tallahassee

I remember "Captain Video" from the 50's. I believe the opening used a theme from "Der Fliegende Holländer". I was just a little kid at the time.

Jul. 21 2011 10:39 AM

Oh, yes, how could I foget the softball game! I guess I am old. I hope this is not an observation, I am old but still wish for many more years at The Met.

Jul. 20 2011 10:53 PM
LES from Washinton, DC

All time best: the Odd Couple episode where Oscar (Jack Klugman) helps get real life opera star Richard Fredricks for Felix's (Tony Randall's) amateur production of Rigoletto.

Some very funny scenes of Felix critiquing Fredericks' performance, offering him pointers for improvement.

Fredericks later injures his leg just before show time, and Oscar must go on as the understudy, wearing the full Rigoletto jester outfit and lypsynching to Fredericks, who sings the part off stage.

There was also the episode where, to encourage children to listen to opera, Felix develops a series of baseball-like trading cards but with opera stars and asparugus-flavored bubble gum (to give kids their vegetables).

Randall clearly loved opera and tried to work the theme into the scripts.

In tribute to one of the finest sitcoms on TV:

"On November 13th, Felix Unger was asked to remove himself from his place of residence. That request came from his wife. Deep down he knew she was right. But he also knew that someday he would return to her. With nowhere else to go, he appeared at the home of his childhood friend, Oscar Madison. Sometime earlier, Madison's wife had thrown him out, requesting that he never return. Can two divorced men share an apartment without driving each other crazy?"

Jul. 20 2011 10:13 PM

Great comments, everyone, keep them coming! We'll be doing an opera-in-film post in a bit (for all you Philadelphia/Marx Bros fans). Come to think of it, with Felix Unger, M*A*S*H's Charles Emerson Winchester, Frasier/Lilith/Diane, we could do a top ten list of film and television's greatest opera fans.

After posting this, I realized that the show whose title we paraphrased for the title of this post—You Can't Do That on Television—also used the William Tell overture in its theme music:

Jul. 20 2011 09:29 PM

Silversalty from Brooklyn , thnk you for that. I also neglet it other favorites, if we include movies: I almost forgot Shawshankt Redemption:

Not just the music, what happens after...I don't remember the quote, but he says he had Mozart in his heart. Nothing but opera can do that.

Jul. 20 2011 09:08 PM
Gamma Doris from Rehoboth, Massachusetts

The stunning film "Daniel Deronda" treated us to a bit of "Porgi Amor" and a brief hint of "Dove Sono"; both from "Marriage of Figaro". Many thanks to our granddaughter Julia whose enthusiastic read of the George Eliot novel on which this BBC/PBS production was based encouraged us to see this film.

Jul. 20 2011 07:29 PM
John Koster from New Jersey

Nobody seems to do the opera itself any more, but "Donna Diana" by Reznicek produced the title theme for "Sergeant Preston of the Yukon." The sponsors also sent me three shares of Klondike land they forgot to file with the Canadian authorities...Just as well nobody struck gold or uranium. Hope the Indian title was clear but I doubt it.

Jul. 20 2011 07:27 PM
Frank Feldman

It's worth mentioning that nine-tenths of Emily Dickinson's poetry can be sung to the tune of Gilligan's Island.

Jul. 20 2011 07:25 PM
Silversalty from Brooklyn

Henry from Manhattan mentioned the Odd Couple. I think Tony Randall was an opera fan. I remember Marilyn Horne being a guest on the show, playing herself. There were probably more opera links.

Not from the small screen but a powerfully emotional scene from the movie "Philadelphia" uses opera to represent and project that power - the ability to touch people deeply through operatic voice.

Tom Hanks as AIDS sufferer Andrew Beckett, lip syncing and translating "La Mamma Morta" sung by Maria Callas.

The long excerpt (7:52)

A shorter version (4:14)

Jul. 20 2011 07:10 PM
Adam Z from New York, NY

Shame on you for not listing at least one of two amazing episodes of "The Odd Couple". One, which another listener alluded to in an earlier comment involved Felix and Oscar answering opera questions on a radio contest and winning a car...
The second episode actually has scenes from "Carmen" performed during the episode, with Felix playing one of the soldiers that she sings to...

Jul. 20 2011 06:58 PM
Mary from Michigan

Captain Kangaroo also had a great rendition of "Barber of Seville", as did Seinfeld when Jerry was hiding from his long-time barber.

Jul. 20 2011 06:38 PM
GCL from Astoria Queens

Very impressive. However the term isn't "trekkie", but "Trekker".

In fact the whole idea of presenting music that way does, ah, resonate. I do recall that one regarding Beverly Sills, with the Muppets. And when they launched a new series, it included a presentation of, ah, popular music, in this case from Broadway. The actress it seems sings better then they thought.

Jul. 20 2011 06:14 PM
Henry from Manhattan

Lots of good entries, my favorite of course Buggs Bunny. I did enjoy also the "Kill the Wabbit" 'toon set to Wagner. One some people may not remember: La Forza Del Destino. Verdi opera. In German it's Die Machte Schiksal. Felix gave the answers. Oscar won a new car. Aida of course. And The Magic Flute. Odd Couple

Jul. 20 2011 05:29 PM
Jeff AKana from Atlanta, GA

The Marx brothers, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, in the wonderful 'A Night at the Opera', so many references from il Trovatore and one from Pagliacci. Filled with the antics of Marx Bros. movies, and some beautiful singing by the cast.

Jul. 20 2011 03:27 PM

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