What's Opera, Doc? is a 1957 animated cartoon short in the Merrie Melodies series, directed by Chuck Jones for Warner Bros. Cartoons. The film features Bugs Bunny being chased by Elmer Fudd through a six-minute and 11 second operatic 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 Valkyries," 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.
Suddenly, Elmer is stopped in his tracks at the sight of the beautiful Valkyrie Brünnhilde (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:
and after the usual "hard to get" pursuit (including a brilliant set design of pink flowers by Maurice Noble) 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.
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 Tannhauser Pilgrim's Chorus was originated by Friz Freleng in the suppressed 1945 wartime cartoon Herr Meets Hare.
Also available for download on iTunes under Bugs Bunny, Vol. 1, this episode is paired with Bugs Bunny Gets the Boid.
Homage was paid to this cartoon in the Looney Tunes video game Bugs Bunny and Taz: Time Busters, in which Fudd-as-Siegfried is the boss of the Viking level. Also, a clip from the short was used on Animaniacs in the Slappy Squirrel segment "Critical Condition".
On October 23rd, 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.