A wuv affair with arias

Times Staff Writer

IT seeps into your system like some kind of musical secondary smoke: Unless you grew up in another country -- or perhaps on another planet -- you probably first absorbed some of opera's most famous arias not in an opera house, but from pop culture.

And now, when you actually go to the opera, you can't get that first listening experience out of your mind -- no matter how lowbrow the source or how long ago it occurred.

Perhaps opera took up residence in your brain when you first saw the classic 1957 Bugs Bunny cartoon "What's Opera, Doc?," which borrows liberally from Wagner's operas, especially "The Flying Dutchman" and "The Valkyrie" (recall the horn-helmeted Elmer Fudd jabbing his spear down the rabbit hole, yelling "Kill the wabbit!" to the Valkyrie leitmotif). Or maybe it took hold when Beyonce Knowles sang of the tragedy of a "guy named Zeke" who loses his can of Pepsi in "Pepsi's Carmen," a big-budget, music-video-style TV commercial (not to be confused with an earlier MTV movie also starring Knowles, "Carmen: A Hip Hopera").

Maybe opera burrowed into your consciousness more recently, as you listened to that roly-poly puppy extolling K9 Advantix flea powder to music from Ponchielli's "La Gioconda" in a current TV spot -- the same melody borrowed more than 40 years ago by Allan Sherman for his novelty song about summer camp, "Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!," probably better known at this point than the opera itself.

Whether the original source is Bugs or Beyonce, the memory is likely to pop up like that invasive extraterrestrial from "Alien." Such a flash of unwilling recognition occurred for me in September at a Los Angeles Opera performance of "Pagliacci" -- when, instead of focusing on tenor Roberto Alagna singing the celebrated tears-of-a-clown aria "Vesti la giubba," I could only hear: "No more Rice Krispies! We are out of Rice Krispies ... " -- the impassioned lament of a 1960s cereal ad.

Opera fans cannot escape the phenomenon this season at Los Angeles Opera, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary. On the schedule are the "greatest hits" operas "Tosca," "Madame Butterfly" and "La Traviata" -- variously used to promote tea, orange juice and computer services.

Because of the stubborn sticking power of their lyrics, advertising jingles represent the phenomenon in its most insidious form (the reason advertising jingles were invented in the first place). But certainly there's also plenty of opera-borrowing going on in movies and entertainment television: In 1990's "Pretty Woman," Richard Gere takes Julia Roberts to Verdi's "La Traviata," and though many may never have heard of Puccini's opera "Gianni Schicchi," they may well have heard its most famous aria, "O mio babbino caro," in the 1985 film "A Room With a View" and elsewhere.

A pop culture staple

IF pop culture follows you to the opera -- if, forevermore, the tears will not stop till you hear snap, crackle and pop -- you are far from alone. According to those who monitor such things, when it comes to pop culture, opera is everywhere.

"Oh, my gosh, hugely, hugely, hugely," says Marc Scorca, president of the service organization Opera America, with operatic enthusiasm. "We keep a list in the office of all the commercials that we hear that use opera." From that list: Barilla tomato sauce, British Airways, Sony, Dunkin' Donuts, Pizza Hut and a 1993 Nike ad featuring basketball star Charles Barkley in a shoe commercial titled "Barkley of Seville." In another sports-opera connection, Opera America's list also mentions the use of the Three Tenors' version of "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's "Turandot" as soccer's World Cup anthem in 1990 ("Nessun dorma" is also available as one of the "free Puccini ring tones" on a Motorola cellphone).

Dana Wade, president of Spike Lee's New York advertising firm, Spike DDB, which produced "Pepsi's Carmen," says it was the familiarity of Carmen's "Habanera" aria that led the producers to set new lyrics about Zeke -- for whom hope is restored when he recovers his lost can of Pepsi with the aid of unusually helpful dancing New Yorkers -- to that tune.

"The melody seemed to work, but it has nothing to do with the story of 'Carmen,' " Wade says. "As a music genre, opera is not as familiar to people as other things are, but this is certainly a very recognizable piece; it's been used in movies, cartoons and a number of genres."

And, Wade adds: "I think if you are telling a dramatic story, opera certainly has a bent in the dramatic arena. The music is always big and full and has lots of transition points. When something in a horror film is about to happen, for example, there are always very dramatic music moments. Our piece was really built on the satire of the moment -- obviously real people are not rallying behind someone who drops their Pepsi can in the middle of Times Square. We felt that the moment was larger than life."

Opera America's Scorca says that opera is often chosen as background just because it's pretty music -- but he believes the mystique of the opera-going experience sometimes plays a larger role in advertising, as well as in feature films.

"You can use opera as an emblem of elegance, or you can play against that emblem to show you are exactly the opposite," Scorca says. "It is a very recognizable image, and even though I sometimes cringe at the stereotypes that are conveyed in those commercials, nonetheless they are putting the opera image out there constantly, and I think add, in a way, to the collective curiosity."

Nicholas Cook, professorial research fellow in music at the University of London and author of the book "Analyzing Musical Multimedia," agrees that opera is often advertisers' first choice to align a product with class and elegance.

"British Airways has used the 'Flower Duet' from Delibes' opera 'Lakme' for years -- not only for a wide range of commercials but also as the 'house music' you hear when you enter the plane, and at stress moments like taking off and landing," Cook says via e-mail. "You've got the prestige connotation, but you've also got connotations of exoticism through the music, meaning both glamour (in contrast to the no-frills airlines) and the lure of far-off places."

Daniel Goldmark, assistant professor of music history at Case Western Reserve University, has a new book, "Tunes for 'Toons," that devotes a chapter to "What's Opera, Doc?" and other instances of cartoon opera, mostly from the 1930s, '40s and '50s. These include a 1944 Woody Woodpecker version of "Barber of Seville" -- not to be confused with Bugs Bunny's "Rabbit of Seville" -- and 1955's "One Froggy Evening," featuring Michigan J. Frog singing that opera's oft-performed aria "Largo al Factotum." "Some of the earliest sound cartoons, all the way back to the late 1920s, take opera as a target -- it was such a great thing to make fun of because it was so highfalutin," Goldmark says.

Goldmark adds that you don't hear opera melodies much in today's cartoons -- partly because studios no longer have in-house orchestras to play them, and partly because opera is less a part of mainstream culture than it was years ago when opera broadcasts were a TV staple and opera stars often performed on variety shows.

Still, he observes, when opera does turn up in recent animation, it is usually used as a vehicle to take wealthy snobs down a peg or two. "There was a very early 'Simpsons' episode called 'Bart the Genius' -- they think Bart has a high IQ, so Marge buys tickets to see 'Carmen,' " Goldmark says. "A good chunk of that is the family at the opera, making fun of things, with a big fat tenor."

Benefits outweigh belittling

WHILE pop culture -- such as Adam Sandler's velvet-caped "Saturday Night Live" character, Opera Man -- often pokes fun at opera, Los Angeles Opera uses that familiarity to its advantage, says Stacy Brightman, director of education and community programs for the company. "My job is to go to folks who think they probably hate opera, who are really scared of it," she says. "We literally disarm them by saying, 'You know what? You already know more opera than you think you do.' We say: 'Hey, you remember that Pampers commercial? Verdi.' "

Brightman says that today's children still most often cite old Bugs Bunny cartoons as their first opera experience; the wabbit apparently can't be killed. In 1992, "What's Opera, Doc?" became the first animated film to be inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, and it lives on in reruns.

"God bless Bugs Bunny; he's done so much for us," she says. And many high school students -- and their parents -- know Placido Flamingo, a frequent visitor to "Sesame Street" in the 1980s. "And, actually, now I have a whole generation, including my own little 7-year-old, who know who Anna Netrebko is from 'Princess Diaries 2,' " Brightman adds.

Soprano Netrebko, who played herself in 2004's "The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement," shot her scenes in November 2003, when she was in town to perform in the opera company's production of "Lucia di Lammermoor." The film was directed by Garry Marshall, who also directed "The Grand Duchess" for Los Angeles Opera this year.

While opera may be less prevalent in today's cartoons than it was in Bugs Bunny's time, Brightman says that many of today's kids are getting their introduction to opera through books: specifically, writer Susan Hammonds' Classical Kids, a series of books and recordings featuring child-centric dramatic stories based in different periods of history and combined with classical music -- a favorite of teachers for the classroom.

And for some, Brightman adds, now it's not the rabbit but the pig: Olivia the Pig, the tiny heroine of several storybooks by artist-writer Ian Falconer. In the series, introduced in 2000, the overachieving piglet -- inspired by a real Olivia, Falconer's niece -- adores opera and ballet and dreams of being Maria Callas or one of the dancers from a Degas painting.

Before penning the books, Falconer was best known for his illustrations for the New Yorker. But he also spent some 13 years in Los Angeles as a stage designer and worked with artist David Hockney on costumes and sets for "Turandot" for Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera.

It had to happen eventually

WITH arias popping through so many layers of the culture, it's hardly surprising to see this year's weird minitrend: opera meets reality TV.

In June, PBS' "Great Performances" series included "Operatunity," an operatic version of "American Idol," co-produced by England's Channel Four Television Corp. in association with Thirteen/WNET New York. For the program, the English National Opera held a countrywide casting call to find a singer who, with no professional experience or training, could be groomed to take part in one of the opera company's performances within a year.

The final six competitors -- including an investment banker, a supermarket cashier and a blind mother of three -- went through operatic "boot camp," and the two winners went on to share the dramatic lead of Gilda in "Rigoletto."

And here in the U.S., a producer is trying to sell a reality show focused on the double life of Kevin Glavin, a regular with the Opera Company of Philadelphia who also owns a Pittsburgh bar. The title: "Livin' Loud." The producer, Samuel J. Maturo, is pitching the series about Glavin and his family as "the Osbournes of opera."

It's enough to make a plaintive aria about Rice Krispies seem like high art.

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