My introduction to Il Barbiere di Siviglia (Sunday, June 8, on Thirteen) came from watching Rabbit of Seville, a 1950 Looney Tunes cartoon directed by Chuck Jones, when I was a kid. Musical director Carl Stalling slightly tweaked Rossini’s overture to back up Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd’s frantic chases, and the juxtaposition couldn’t have felt more natural. It’s as if Rossini had scored the cartoon, instead of the cartoon having been set to preexisting music. Seven years later, Jones went back to the trough with What’s Opera, Doc?, in which he and arranger Milt Franklyn deconstructed the entire Wagner canon in under seven minutes. It’s hard to underestimate the influence this pair of cartoons had on at least a couple of generations of budding music lovers, as Richard Freedman wrote in an article for Andante. But this casual referencing of “high art” in a so-called low medium feels alien now, when film, TV and YouTube tend to refer other pop-cultural artifacts. Judging by its lack of pop spoofing, high art doesn’t exist anymore in America.The main reason, as Lawrence W. Levine’s pointed out in his 1988 essay Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, is that “one cannot parody that which is not well known.” Now it’s talk shows, ads and popular films that get sent up; when opera, dance, theater or even literary fiction are parodied, it’s often not with affection but with condescension—remember Mike Myers’s “Sprockets” sketches on SNL? This isn’t new, as America has always had a strong anti-intellectual, anti–high art strain fed by misguided populism. In White Christmas, Robert Alton had Danny Kaye and Vera Ellen take on Martha Graham in “Choreography,” setting up a strawman in lines such as “Chicks who did kicks/Aren’t kicking anymore/They’re doing choreography.” Of course it’s perfectly possible to admire both Alton and Graham, and setting up false dichotomies is kind of a mindless pandering exercise. Still, what a fun number!
Graham—so immediately identifiable, so easy to pastiche—was namedropped more recently in The Birdcage, when Robin Williams launched into what New York Times dance critic Jennifer Dunning described as a “whirlwind tour through modern dance”—in 13 seconds.
Setting aside Woody Allen (Love and Death is basically an extended riff on 19th-century while you could argue that Interiors is an unfunny take on Ingmar Bergman), knowing spoofs of high and middlebrow art have been more reliably found outside the U.S. for the past couple of decades—and if I’m wrong, please comment; I’d love to know more. For instance in the 1980s Canada’s SCTV series had a regular feature called “Masterpiece Theatre” that gunned for BBC-type starched drama as well as brainy live theater. In an installment, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson parodied Pinter; another was a celebration of alternative lifestyles with Gertrude Stein.
And while almost anybody can allude to the chess scene with Death from Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, now part of the vernacular (cf Stephen Colbert’s “Cheating Death”), the British comedians Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders have raised the bar with, for instance, a dead-on take on Fellini’s La Dolce Vita performed in Italian, with subtitles. (Note the spot-on Nino Rota–esque music.) Other French & Saunders mini-masterpieces include a fakumentary on Andy Warhol’s Factory, complete with mock Velvet Underground footage, and the brilliant Muriel & Maddie, a.k.a. artists Gilbert & George. Just imagine SNL doing a sketch about Bruce Naumann. Nah, don’t think so.
Bringing this post full circle to the parody-ready world of opera, French & Saunders also tackled divas. In this 1990 skit, they appeared as Renata von Trapp and Lucia Poop, and roped in conductor Carl Davis and mezzo Sarah Walker for an operatic version of…well, you kinda have to watch it.