SEINFELD. Season 4, Episode 9: “THE OPERA”
EXTERIOR. OPERA HOUSE.
Jerry and Elaine wait outside the opera house as last-minute patrons rush in for the performance.ELAINE“Jerry, we’re going to miss the overture!”
JERRY (singing)“Overture, curtain lights! This is it, we’ll hit the heights. AndOh, what heights we’ll hit! On with the show, this is it!”
ELAINE (after a pause)“You know, it is so sad. All your knowledge of highculture comes from Bugs Bunny cartoons.”
Jerry is not alone. In fact, there’s an old joke that if you stand on a street corner of any great American city and sing the first few bars of Wagner’s “Ride of The Valkyries,” 90% of passersby will find the mantra “Kill da wabbit” popping into their heads.
If the experiment were conducted in Sarasota, where decades of music lovers have heard “real” Wagner performed in the most glorious manner possible and in a lineage pretty much going back to Wagner himself, the percentages (and mental images) might skew a bit more favorably toward breast-plated sopranos in horned helmets. Still, the association of Looney Tunes with Wagner—and Rossini, Liszt, J. Strauss, von Suppé, Smetana, Tchaikovsky, Donizetti, and any other number of golden age composers—is an indelible one. And it’s no accident. Because hundreds of millions of people, in America and the world over, first experienced classical music (and opera) at the hands of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd, and the rest of the Looney Tunes ensemble, cavorting to the masterful classically-infused cartoon scores of Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn.
For Stalling and Franklyn, the cartoons may have been hilarious, but the creation of the music was no laughing matter. They arduously and passionately worked with the same glorious Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra—and within the same studio music hierarchy—as did the more famous (and better-paid) WB feature film composers of the day: Max Steiner, Erich Korngold, Bernard Herrmann, and others. But even though their animated shorts were only seven minutes long (instead of a feature’s running time of two or three hours) and starred Bugs Bunny (instead of Bogart or Bette or Bacall), Stalling and Franklyn composed with a magic that was irresistible to audiences of the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s—and still is today. They established an unmistakably distinct Looney Tunes “sound,” and although movie fans might not have been able to define it, they instantly knew it (and loved it) when they heard it.
Born in 1891 in Lexington, Missouri, Carl Stalling was a piano prodigy at age six, and he cut his musical teeth on that new invention known as “moving pictures.” He was composing music for the movies before the movies actually even HAD music—at least, on actual soundtracks. By the age of 12, he was the principal theater pianist of his hometown’s little silent movie house, improvising scores day after day to the flickering black-and-white images on the silver screen. By his early twenties, he moved to the big city, where his improvised film scores became much more complex thanks to the grand theater organs found in Kansas City and St. Louis’ elaborate new movie palaces. He expanded his talents to composing and conducting for an actual theater orchestra at Kansas City’s Isis Theatre.
In a twist of fate that would change the direction of the rest of his life, Stalling made friends with a young, unknown Kansas City animator—a penniless guy named Walt Disney—and discovered the world of animation. Stalling and Disney ended up in Hollywood, and after two years of working with Disney (as well as with the innovative Ub Iwerks) young Carl Stalling moved over to Warner Bros., where he would spend the rest of his career.
Milt Franklyn was at first Stalling’s arranger and orchestrator at Warner Bros., but later took on more and more compositional duties. Upon Stalling’s retirement in 1958, Franklyn assumed the mantle of Looney Tunes’ composer himself. Together, the two of them—working under visionary animation directors such as Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, and Bob Clampett—composed scores that were every bit as evocative as the cartoons they accompanied.
Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies were always populated with hit songs of the day. That was by design, in order to push the vast Warner Bros. song catalog to audiences and sheet music buyers—a sort of 1940s YouTube. But it was Stalling and Franklyn’s pure orchestral scores that truly dazzled. A Road Runner cartoon would almost become a ballet, full of orchestral sound and fury that would inevitably cascade (and decrescendo) down to the whisper of an alto flute’s tri-tone as Wile E. Coyote almost silently hit the bottom of yet another Painted Desert crevasse, way way below. The Rabbit of Seville was composed completely in the style and orchestral fabric of Rossini himself, while the gigantic What’s Opera, Doc?, with full-bore, Wagnerian-sized instrumentation, combined not only the major leitmotifs of all four Ring Cycle operas, but of Tannhauser, Lohengrin, The Flying Dutchman, and Rienzi as well. Eight Wagner operas in six minutes and 48 seconds. (And there are those—including some musicians—who think that this is truly the way to experience them!
In reality, it is no surprise to find the genius of Stalling and Franklyn returning to Sarasota Orchestra, because these two composers have earned their moment in the limelight and their place upon this most hallowed of concert platforms.
And it’s because of all of this brilliant music that this concert has toured the world non-stop for 30 years and appeals to such a wide audience. Animation fans, of course, love the cartoons and the music and revel in their lifetime memories of these brilliant jewels. But serious classical music fans will not be disappointed, either. In fact, they have an added advantage: They will not only be treated to dazzling playing of some truly brilliant film scores based on the great classics, but they will get all of the inside jokes that the true musical experts will appreciate and love.
When my partner-in-crime David Wong and I concocted these concerts—first Bugs Bunny On Broadway back in the last century (1990), followed by Bugs Bunny at the Symphony I and II in 2010 and 2013—we had no idea that they (and we) would tour them almost continuously, playing to millions of concertgoers worldwide with a breathtaking array of world-class symphony orchestras and venues. These ranged from the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl (22 times!), to the New York Philharmonic at Lincoln Center, to the Sydney Opera House, the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall, the Philadelphia Orchestra—and of course, Sarasota Orchestra. We thought our debut 1990 sold-out Broadway run at the Gershwin Theatre was a fluke that would not be replicated anywhere else. We were wrong.
I guess we should not have been surprised, because the classic Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies projected in this concert, up on the big screen above the live orchestra, are indeed brilliant. But more importantly, so is the music. Audiences everywhere love the scores of Carl Stalling and Milt Franklyn. Orchestral musicians love playing them too. Stalling and Franklyn were the real deal. Although they oftentimes took their musical cues from European composers, their mini-masterpieces were (and still are) quintessentially American: brash, fresh, exciting, fantastically bombastic, in your face. Perfect accompaniment for Bugs Bunny and his friends.
And so, going back to that moment in Seinfeld … I think Elaine really had it all wrong. Perhaps it’s NOT such a “sad” thing that so many of us first experienced classical music (and high art) from Bugs Bunny cartoons. Because for millions, the music of the Looney Tunes is also the music of our youth, our childhood, and in so many ways, the music of our imaginations. That makes it unforgettable … and uniquely joyous, not sad!
George Daugherty’s 40-year conducting career has included appearances with the world’s leading orchestras, ballet companies, opera houses, and concert artists. He is also an Emmy Award-winning/five-time Emmy-nominated creator whose professional profile includes major credits as a director, writer, and producer for television, film, innovative concerts, and live theater. Co-created by Daugherty and his partner David Ka Lik Wong, Bugs Bunny at the Symphony is a spectacular fusion of classical music and classic animation that celebrates the world’s most famous and beloved cartoons and their equally-famous music. To kick off the 2019-2020 Pops season, on January 3-4 Sarasota Orchestra will present Bugs Bunny at the Symphony with side-splitting updates in its 30th Anniversary Edition. Concert Details and Tickets