Olivia Giovetti is the former Classical & Opera contributing editor for Time Out New York and a regular contributor to Gramophone and Classical Singer magazines. She has also written for the Washington Post, Ariama.com, Playbill, ...
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.