Today, it is one of the best known and most imitated of all classic Looney Tunes (“Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!”), but Chuck Jones’ 1957 short What’s Opera, Doc? was not initially recognized as a modern classic, nor was it in line for any Oscars at the time of its release. These are among the revelations in Behind The Tunes: Wagnerian Rabbit—The Making Of ‘What’s Opera, Doc?, a 2004 documentary featurette by Constantine Nasr originally produced for the Looney Tunes Golden Collection, Vol. 2 DVD box set. Jones loved to parody familiar classical and operatic music in his cartoons, and What’s Opera, Doc? was an opportunity to do to Richard Wagner’s four-opera cycle Der Ring Des Nibelungen what he had done to Gioachino Rossini in 1950’s Rabbit Of Seville. But the true origins of What’s Opera, Doc? actually lie with writer Michael Maltese, who had written a similar Wagnerian passage into 1945’s Herr Meets Hare, directed by Friz Freleng. For Jones, the cartoon was also another chance to stick it to Walt Disney, who had produced the highfalutin Fantasia in 1940.
In Wagnerian Rabbit, various animators and movie historians, including Leonard Maltin, weigh in on the history and impact of Opera. Through archival footage, Chuck Jones himself is on hand to explain part of it. Warner expected its directors to churn out a certain number of completed theatrical cartoons within a given time period, but Jones was an expert at manipulating his schedule so that he could lavish man-hours on something like Opera while churning out several Road Runner adventures in relative haste. This allowed him time for such luxuries as bringing in real ballet dancers to model for the animators, so that Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd could do an accurate pas de deux. One aspect of What’s Opera, Doc? that fans may not have considered is that the cartoon required its two voice actors, Mel Blanc (Bugs Bunny) and Arthur Q. Bryan (Elmer Fudd), to be excellent singers. Bryan, it is reported, actually started in radio as a tenor. Appropriately, What’s Opera, Doc? was Bryan’s last great performance before his death in 1959.