The Michael Maltese story features Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny through a 6:11 opera tic parody of 19th century classical composer Richard Wagner's operas, particularly Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) and Tannhäuser. It is sometimes characterized as a condensed version of Wagner's Ring, and its music borrows heavily from the second opera Die Walküre, woven around the standard Bugs-Elmer conflict.
Originally released to theaters by Warner Bros. on July 6, 1957, What's Opera, Doc? features the speaking and singing voices of Mel Blanc as Bugs and Arthur Q. Bryan as Elmer (except for one word dubbed by Blanc). The short is also sometimes informally referred to as Kill the Wabbit after the line sung by Fudd to the tune of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyrie", the opening passage from Act Three of Die Walküre (which is also the leitmotif of the Valkyries).
In 1994, What's Opera, Doc? was voted #1 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of all time by 1000 members of the animation field.
The screen pans on the silhouette of a mighty Viking arousing ferocious lightning storms, but then zooms in to reveal that it is only Elmer Fudd (as the demigod Siegfried). Elmer sings his signature line "Be vewy qwiet, I'm hunting wabbits" (in recitative), before arriving at Bugs Bunny's hole. Bugs watches Elmer fruitlessly jam his spear into the hole to "Kiww the wabbit! Kiww the wabbit! Kiww the wabbit!" Bugs sticks his head out of another rabbit hole, and, apparently appalled, sings his signature line "What's up, doc?" to the theme of Siegfried's horn call from the Ring Cycle. He then taunts Elmer about his "spear and magic helmet". This prompts a display of Elmer-as-Siegfried's "mighty powers", set to the overture of The Flying Dutchman. At that, Bugs flees and the chase begins.
(Bugs in an obvious disguise), riding in grandly on an enormously fat horse (in Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, director Jones notes that the production team "gave the horse the operatic curves we couldn't give Bugs"). "Siegfried" and "Brünnhilde" exchange endearments, set to the overture to Tannhäuser:
"Oh Bwunhilde, you'w so wuvwy!"
"Yes I know it; I can't help it!"
Oh Bwunhilde, be my wove!
and after the usual "hard to get" pursuit, they perform a short ballet (based on the Venusberg ballet in Tannhäuser), capping it off with the duet "Return My Love" set to another section of the Tannhäuser overture. Bugs' true identity is suddenly exposed when his headdress falls off, enraging Elmer and prompting him to command fierce lightning, "typhoons, hurricanes, earthquakes" and, finally, "SMOG!!!" (a word Elmer screams which was not done by Bryan, but by Blanc) to "kill da wabbit!" while music from The Valkyries plays in the background.
Eventually, a lightning bolt strikes Bugs dead. Upon seeing the bunny's corpse, Elmer, as usual, immediately regrets his wrath and tearfully carries the bunny off, presumably to Valhalla in keeping with the Wagnerian theme, per Act III of The Valkyries (although the music again comes from the overture to Tannhäuser). Bugs suddenly breaks character, raises his head to face the audience and remarks, "Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?" The Merrie Melodies end title card then appears with all the words already there.
This cartoon marks one of the few times that Bugs Bunny is defeated by Fudd.
When presented in the 1979 compilation The Bugs Bunny Road-Runner Movie, Bugs Bunny claims that the short was the whole of Wagner's 17-hour Opera Cycle "Der Ring des Nibelungen" (The Ring of the Nibelung, which he mispronounced as "The Rings of Nibble-lung" in his Brooklynese accent), condensed into only 7 minutes. He also pronounced Richard Wagner the way it looks (wag-ner), instead of Rikard Vagner. Besides the second opera of Ring, Die Walküre|Die Walküre (The Valkyrie) and the third opera of the Ring, Siegfried, other Wagnerian music present in the cartoon comes from Tannhäuser and Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman). Specific excerpts include:
the overture from The Flying Dutchman — opening storm scene
Siegfried's horn call from Siegfried — "O mighty warrior of great fighting stock"
the overture and "Pilgrims’ Chorus" from Tannhäuser — "O Bwünnhilde, you'w so wuvwy,""Return my love," and the closing scene
the Bacchanal from Tannhäuser — ballet scene between Elmer and Bugs
This cartoon is widely regarded not only as Chuck Jones’ greatest masterpiece, but many film critics, animation fans, and filmmakers consider this to be the greatest animation achievement of all the cartoons Warner Bros. released since this medium arose in 1930. It has topped many Top Ten lists of the greatest animated cartoons of all time. It was rated by a panel of over 1000 animators in Jerry Beck's 1994 book The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals as the #1 greatest cartoon of all time. It was inducted by the Library of Congress in 1992 for the National Film Registry, presently preserving the 500 most important films of all time, and is the only short cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny on the list.
A magnum opus
What's Opera, Doc? required about 6 times as much work and expense as any of the other 6-minute cartoons his production unit was turning out at the time. Jones has admitted as much, having described a surreptitious re-allocation of production time to completing the short. During the 6 minutes of What's Opera, Doc?, Jones lampoons:
the contemporary style of ballet,
Wagner's perceived ponderous operatic style, and even
the by-then clichéd Bugs-and-Elmer formula.
Michael Maltese devised the story for the cartoon, and also wrote lyrics to Wagner's music to create the duet "Return My Love". Art director Maurice Noble devised the stylized backdrops for the cartoon. In 1992, it became the first cartoon short to be deemed "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" by the United States Library of Congress, and thus was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Duck Amuck and One Froggy Evening were also later inducted into the registry, making Chuck Jones the only animator with three shorts thus recognized. It is currently the only Bugs Bunny short listed in the National Film Registry.
The cartoon drew upon some previous Warner studio work; the concept of Bugs in Valkyrie drag riding a fat horse to the Tannhäuser Pilgrim's Chorus was originated by Friz Freleng in the suppressed 1945 wartime cartoon Herr Meets Hare.
iTunes - Bugs Bunny Vol. 1, paired with Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid
24 Karat Collection, A Salute to Chuck Jones
Elmer Fudd's Comedy Capers
Looney Tunes: The Collectors Edition, Vol. 5: Musical Masterpieces
Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 2, with two optional audio commentaries, optional music-only and voice-only audio tracks, and accompanied by a making-of documentary entitled Wagnerian Wabbit
On October 23, 2007, Microsoft's Xbox Live service began offering more than 50 Looney Tunes animated shorts on Xbox Live Marketplace, with several of them available in high definition for the first time. While there is a fee to download the cartoons, What's Opera, Doc? was available on the service for free in both standard and high definition formats.
↑Cartoons were scheduled for a five-week production, according to producer Eddie Selzer. Jones did this cartoon in seven weeks instead. To cover up for the extra time spent, he had his entire unit doctor their time cards to make it appear as if they working on the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner short Zoom and Bored (1957) for two weeks before production of that cartoon actually started.
Beck, Jerry and Friedwald, Will (1989): Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies: A Complete Illustrated Guide to the Warner Bros. Cartoons. Henry Holt and Company.