Animation Cel-ebration
March 6, 2023 posted by Michael Lyons

A True High Note: The 65th Anniversary of “What’s Opera Doc”

A meme is circulating asking, “So, how did you get into classical music?” There’s an answer underneath, “Me, an intellectual-“…followed by an image from the 1957 cartoon short, What’s Opera, Doc?

For generations, this is how many learned about the world of classical music—recognizing strains of the world’s greatest songs years later in grammar school music class, as visions of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd pranced through our minds.

What’s Opera, Doc? has been not just a gateway into the realm of beautiful music but the endless possibilities that animation can provide.

No wonder many animation historians awarded this cartoon short the top spot in Jerry Beck’s 1994 book, The 50 Greatest Cartoons: As Selected by 1,000 Animation Professionals.

What’s Opera Doc? is all the limitless possibilities and magic that animation provides in one cartoon.

The short takes the classic – now almost cliché – plot of Elmer hunting Bugs and lays it over the serious setting of a Wagnerian opera. Writer Michael Maltese did this gag first in Friz Freleng’s Herr Meets Hare (1945), but with Jones encouragement expands it here to a full seven minutes. Opening with a pretty direct parody of Fantasia’s “Night on Bald Mountain,” as a thunderstorm reveals hulking shadows of a horned figure against a mountainside are shown to be Elmer, dressed in the garb of a mighty Viking, the demigod Seigfried.

He sings of taking his spear to “Kill the wabbit! Kill the wabbit!” This causes Bugs Bunny to surface and sing, “O mighty warrior of great fighting stock, might I inquire to ask…Eh, What’s Up. Doc?”

Elmer threatens to unleash the power of his magic helmet, and when Bugs sees the ferocity of this, he does what he has done in many shorts: disguises himself in drag. This time, as the beautiful Valkyrie Brunnhilde, riding a horse.

Elmer falls in love (“Oh, Bwunnhiwda, you’re so wuvwee!”), but soon, Bugs’ disguise is discovered, and Elmer is back to wanting to “Kill the wabbit!” He uses his power to create a storm and tear the mountains apart, bringing Bugs’ demise. Bugs’ lifeless body lies in the spotlight as rain drops fall on his body.

As a remorseful Elmer carries Bugs/ Brunnhilde’s lifeless body off, Bugs’ head pops up; he looks at the camera and asks, “Well, what did you expect in an opera? A happy ending?”

With lines like that, coupled with the stunning images in What’s Opera Doc? the short is both a celebration and a parody of all that’s beautiful about animation.

In addition to the customary comedy we would expect from a Bugs and Elmer cartoon, What’s Opera Doc? is simply beautiful to watch. The lush, full animation adds to this, such as Brunnhilde’s horse, an absolute marvel of hysterical character design. The way that the mammoth equine gallops down the mountainside are just one example of the lithe movements found in this short.

Coupled with this is a stunning layout by Maurice Noble and backgrounds by Phillip DeGuard, that combine modern and classic sensibilities.

A Maurice Noble layout for “What’s Opera Doc?” (1957)

At the helm for all this is the genius Chuck Jones, who seems the only person who could have directed What’s Opera, Doc? An intellectual with an innate sense of comic timing, who was responsible for many of Warner Bros’ best-loved cartoons, What’s Opera, Doc? stands as his magnum opus.

Celebrating its 65th anniversary last July, What’s Opera, Doc? has secured an unparalleled legacy in animation history.

Before it was honored with the top spot among The 50 Greatest Cartoons, What’s Opera Doc? was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1992. And in the six and a half decades since its release, the cartoon short’s appreciation society has only grown, and its inspiration is still felt by so many.

In Jerry Beck’s book, The 50 Greatest Cartoons, contributor Steve Schneider comments: “The greatest cartoon of all time? The point remains debatable. Nevertheless, Chuck Jones’s splendiferous What’s Opera Doc? has emerged as the clear, sentimental favorite of the largest assemblage of animation fans, practitioners, critics, and general cartooniacs ever polled. The fact that this fabled film is a work of stunning beauty, great humor, and masterly execution only serves to make the choice seem eminently reasonable.”


  • This was, as far as I’m concerned, the last great Bugs Bunny cartoon and the last great classic WB theatrical cartoon. Every cartoon after that just pales in comparison.

    Aside from 1928’s STEAMBOAT WILLIE ( Mickey Mouse’s debut ), this is the greatest animation achievement in history, if not in WB’s 100 year history. Must be seen from beginning to end.

    For all I know, the moment Bugs Bunny died, the entire LOONEY TUNES series died with it.

    Out of four stars…I rate WHAT’S OPERA DOC One Thousand!!!

    • I disagree as there are some standouts after that that. “High Notes” come to mind.

    • Of course, he’s not REALLY dead. He comes back for close to 40 more cartoons in the golden age.
      And is it just me, or was Bugs Bunny tones down quite a bit in the following years after this?
      He’s no longer jumping all over the place. And often he played the straight man in later shorts.
      Latter day entries, such as Now Hare This, Backwoods Bunny,and others in the following years up to ’64
      are examples. A far cry from the out of control Pre- A Wild Hare prototype bugs.

    • I think such a declaration is going way too far. What’s Opera Doc? is a fine cartoon but I see it as more of an interesting deviation from the typical Looney Tunes cartoon. When I think of the best Looney Tunes cartoons, I think of The Great Piggy Bank Robbery, Baby Bottleneck, Book Revue, Porky in Wackyland, Duck Amuck, One Froggy Evening, or Rabbit of Seville.

    • I HIGHLY disagree with that as there were several gems released after What’s Opera Doc.

  • I watched this cartoon again just a few days ago! It still makes me laugh after all these years, and I still marvel at its beauty and grandeur. Grandeur — now that’s a word you don’t often see in connection with Warner Bros. cartoons. But I think it’s warranted here.

    As for its role in introducing young people to great music, I think the cartoon has a mixed legacy. I’ve found that a lot of people whose chief impression of opera has been gleaned from animated cartoons are unable to take the art form seriously at all. That said, “What’s Opera, Doc?” has always been popular with opera lovers.

    It doesn’t surprise me in the least that “What’s Opera, Doc?” took the number one spot on the 1994 list of 50 Greatest Cartoons, or that Chuck Jones dominated the top ten. In recent years, however, it’s become fashionable to denigrate Jones and his work, and any evaluation that slings around words like “intellectual” and “genius” (let alone “SUPER genius”) is bound to elicit a chorus of sniping. “Chuck Jones is overrated!” “I can’t stand all those dimples!” “He’s pretentious because he likes Mark Twain!” “‘Birds Anonymous’ is a million times better!” “Chuck sucks!” All I can say to that is: ah, your father’s moustache!

  • I think that in order to best appreciate how much of a spectacle What’s Opera Doc is, you’ve got to see it in a movie theater. I’ve been lucky enough to see it in a theater several times.

    • Yeah, I got to experience it once or twice at the Ohio Theater during their annual “Cartoon Capers” screening during the “Summer Movie Screening”.

    • I saw it in a theater with Chuck Jones present three times, I think. And once with Abe Levitow.

  • Like “Duck Amuck” (1953), I still can’t believe this cartoon was submitted for Ademy Award nomination and it got snubbed! I questioned the committee at the time.

  • Has it ever been determined which Road Runner cartoon was rushed through production in order to give more attention to WOD?

    • What’s Opera Doc? is sandwiched between Steal Wool (a Ralph and Sam) and Zoom and Bored (Roadrunner and Coyote) – most likely those two were shaved for production time.

    • Going by production number order, the closest Road Runner to Opera is Gee Whiz-z-z-z! Which fits, since that was Ernie Nordli’s sole RR effort, and Nordli’s work on Opera was entirely thrown out. But was that the one? Opera was a more expensive cartoon and in production much longer and overlapped a lot more cartoons, in a production season when almost all the Jones cartoons were works of art and it’s hard to determine ANY kind of shortcuts, Steal Wool and Zoom and Bored included. I’d hazard some time was shaved off Scrambled Aches, which always stood out as a Maltese-written RR with no particularly memorable gag.

      • I don’t know. I though the Dehydrated Boulders gag and the whole cannon scene at the end was memorable.

      • Re: Zoom and Bored: Is it possible this is part of why Corny Cole animated on this one (even if only a brief scene)? To relieve the usual stable of animators working on WAD?

  • Personally, my gateway to classical music was Ren & Stimpy. I dare say that show used more classical cues than Looney Tunes did.

  • It’s a great cartoon, no doubt about it, but people who think it’s the greatest WB cartoon ever tend to forget that it’s not a cartoon that could stand alone WITHOUT all the previous Bugs Bunny cartoons. It’s only funny because we all know Bugs & Elmer from a zillion experiences with them prior to seeing WHAT’S OPERA, DOC?

    • And then there’s One Froggy Evening, maybe the most delightfully self-contained great cartoon of them all.

  • It’s a good cartoon, although I think Rabbit of Seville is better, Still, a triumph no doubt.

    • I agree–RABBIT OF SEVILLE is my favorite Jones cartoon.

      • I agree that Rabbit of Seville is the superior cartoon. It’s using the same general theme with fuller poses, timing, and comedy. Tom Ruegger made the point that What’s Opera, Doc? simply isn’t funny enough to be considered the greatest Looney Tunes cartoon of all-time, and that hits the nail on the head. Just the bold cutting of Fudd zipping in as a bride in Seville kills me every time. Opera has no equivalent.

        Jim, your other point about needing prior Bugs/Elmer knowledge to appreciate What’s Opera, Doc? fully is one me and Bob Jaques made on Cartoon Logic. I kind of agree – but then, isn’t Clampett’s Old Grey Hare (which I also love) also guilty of the same? (And it was much bolder to do that kind of cartoon only about four years into the series, when it was more than likely the average theatergoer hadn’t seen a Bugs/Elmer cartoon by that point; Jones had fifteen years and dozens of cartoons by the time he made his meta-masterpiece.)

        Even so, to this day, Opera tops the polls *every* time, so it may be the most popular cartoon of all. It’s also *not* the most overrated cartoon – maybe the most over-exposed or over-discussed, though.

        • Yeah, but does a cartoon does a cartoon HAVE to be funny enough to be consider great? I don’t think so.

    • Same here. Rabbit of Seville is my favorite Jones Bugs Bunny and my overall favorite Jones cartoon is Duck Amuck.

  • The creativity of this cartoon alone sets it apart from all the rest due in part by the classical music and theme. I ve never seen anything close this it.
    And that was the music of the intellectual’s… classical.

    Mariana G

  • One of my earliest memories of animation. I recall watching it when I was 3 on a recording taped off ITV onto a short-lived (and possibly UK exclusive?) format called Video2000. The final line particularly stuck with me.

  • For opera buffs, the backgrounds are highly reminiscent of the abstract, minimalist sets then in use at the Wagner Festivals in Bayreuth during the 1950’s. They were the work of Wieland Wagner, Richard Wagner’s stepson, who took over the festival after World War II with the task of purging it of Nazi influences and associations. He did so by doing away with the classical, representational productions that had been designed to glorify the Nazi ideal of Germany, by replacing the sets with severe, modernistic sets that only suggested the scenes or were meant to represent states of mind, using colored light projections as well to accentuate the moods of the music. It would appear that Jones & Company were fully aware of this, and seem to have been possibly parodying it, since the productions were well-known and controversial, especially among opera traditionalists.

    • You’re absolutely right about the sets, but Wieland Wagner was the composer’s grandson, not his stepson.

  • Though “What’s Opera, Doc?” took most of its tropes from the Ring cycle, its score came largely from “Tannhauser.” And I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who prefers “Rabbit of Seville” – especially the scene where Bugs has Elmer in the barber chair, giving his scalp the works, in time to the overture.

    • I got my first Bugs-as-Brunnhilde-riding-fat-horse-to-Wagner fix in “Herr Meets Hare” way back when the first pre-1948s hit TV in the 1950s. An all-time top favorite moment in all-time top favorite Warner cartoon long before I ever saw “What’s Opera, Doc?” Ever since then I’ve watched the former uncountable times and the latter you could count on the fingers of both hands – fewer if you count all the way through. Well, there’s also all the time I spent back in the 90s creating a stereo version on a tape by getting it synced up with the track on the “Bugs Bunny on Broadway” CD.

  • WHAT’S OPERA, DOC? has always been a favorite of mine. My late friend, film collector Mickey Gold could not get past the Wagnerian musical score, which in his mind was firmly associated with Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. He was Jewish and grew up during the Depression and World War II, so his associating the music from something totally evil was way outside my understanding, although I certainly understood portions of the music for years had been associated with Nazis – like, is it THE RIDE OF THE VALKARIES? On the other hand, my friend Mickey had no problem with bits of Wagnerian music used in the FLASH GORDON serials or Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” being used for the “V for Victory” tune for American made movies from WWII.

  • While I wouldn’t say What’s Opera Doc was my first introduction to classical music, it certainly was one of the first cartoons to peek my interest in the genre. Truly one of the most iconic Looney Tunes shorts.

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