Television commercials are probably as good an indicator of a society’s cultural health as any. And anyone looking for proof of the cachet that opera once maintained in American life would do well to consider these commercials, which Rice Krispies ran in the 1960s. To a certain generation of opera goers, these hilarious vignettes probably imparted a degree of prestige and brand loyalty that companies — Texaco, for one particularly painful example — used to consider incomparably positive P.R.
I’d never seen these clips until someone passed them along as YouTube fodder a few weeks ago; but I’ve come to love the bizarre combination of high and low culture that seems plainly an anachronism compared to the current world of advertising. The inherent absurdity behind the conflation of eating aerated rice and opera, plays into not just customary American cliches about the art form (it’s large, it’s overblown, it’s bombastic, it’s absurdly emotional and sentimental), but also illustrates the ostensibly defunct idea that a given product might benefit from association with an emblem of high culture: it’s interesting to consider the essentially trivial role that the actual product plays in both of these commercials.
As someone who came of age as an operagoer during a period in American life when the art form’s role in popular culture might best be described as liminal, I’m envious of the days when these kinds of commercials resonated with American TV audiences. I missed Beverly Sills hosting The Tonight Show and had barely attained a measure of high-cultural consciousness while the Three Tenors were belting out “Nessun dorma” in unison in the world’s soccer stadiums. The efforts of the Gelb administration at the Met don’t resonate with me as a reassertion of the opera’s cultural primacy, so much as ascendancy happening here and now. So it’s jarring to consider that these commercials would completely flummox modern TV audiences , who are no more likely to recognize the Puccini’s and Leoncavallo’s melodies than they are to know the name Adlai Stevenson or the origin of the phrase “23 Skidoo.”
That being said, I think there’s still some nominal pleasure to be found in the unexpected ways that opera can insinuate itself into American television’s commercial sphere. Whether it’s a ragtime piano version of Musetta’s waltz used as a soundtrack to sell Smuckers jam, or Lakmé‘s flower duet as an airline’s commercial theme, marketing and P.R. gurus seem to understand that there’s a certain undeniable appeal behind these melodies, which continue to speak to us through the ages — even if we’re not aware of their names or origins.
What other instances of opera or classical music as commercial soundtracks have I missed? Share your favorites in the comments section. See both Rice Krispies commercials embedded below.