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A wuv affair with arias

Aiming for elegance or playing against it, pop culture has found the high emotion inherent in opera too tempting to pass up. Whether it's a wabbit mangling Wagner or Beyonce belting out Bizet, it brings lofty music down to earth.

December 04, 2005|Diane Haithman | 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."

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