If you were to walk up to someone on the street and ask them to sing an opera tune, they would very likely start off chanting “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Fi-i-i-igaro-o-o-o!” The repeated Figaros are one of the most familiar parts of operatic singing in popular culture.
Chances are you too are familiar with this famous aria sung at Figaro’s first entrance in Rossini’s opera The Barber of Seville, or Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Figaro’s aria is titled Largo al Factotum, which translates into English as “Make way for the factotum.” The term “factotum” refers to a general servant and comes from Latin where it literally means “do everything.” Today a factotum might be called a handyman or jack of all trades.
Why is this particular aria so familiar? It has been used in at least eleven cartoons. The earliest using the aria Largo al Factotum was Woody Woodpecker’s tenth cartoon, The Barber of Seville, produced by Walter Lantz Productions in 1944 and using the voice talents of Mel Blanc. Woody arrives at "Tony Figaro's" barber shop in hopes of getting a "victory haircut" (a then-contemporary World War II reference). Finding the shop's proprietor out for an Army physical, Woody attempts to cut his own hair and those of other customers. Woody's second and primary customer is a burly Italian construction worker who asks for "the whole works". He proceeds to lather his client's face, chin, mouth, and shoes while singing Rossini's Largo al Factotum. The farce concludes with a chase throughout the barbershop as Woody doubles the tempo of his singing, until the woodpecker corners the man in the barber's chair and proceeds to give him a shave and haircut at manic speed.
Disney made one of the more memorable short films to use this opera with its 1946 short film The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met, known more popularly as Willie the Operatic Whale. Willie is a whale who can sing in not only one voice, but three – tenor, baritone and bass – and likes to entertain his seagull friends with his arias. The film opens with the credits accompanied by the Overture to The Barber of Seville. When Sailors hear the whale singing at sea and report it to the local newspaper, the opera impresario, Tetti Tatti, can only assume that the whale has swallowed an opera singer. Tetti Tatti heads out to sea in search of the whale to kill it and save the opera singer. When Willie first encounters the impresario and the sailors, he is thrilled to have a new audience and launches into the aria Fargo Al Factotum. Unfortunately, the impresario ultimately succeeds in killing Willie, but all is not lost, for Willie ends up in heaven singing with 1000 voices.
However we can probably credit Warner Brothers and Bugs Bunny for helping The Barber of Seville‘s overture make its way onto the TVs and into the hearts of many. In Rabbit of Seville, Bugs Bunny flees into the backstage area of the Hollywood Bowl stage on which is playing the opera The Barber of Seville with Elmer Fudd in close pursuit. Elmer races onto the stage seeking Bugs Bunny. Seeing an opportunity to fight on his terms, Bugs raises the curtain on Elmer, trapping him on stage. As the orchestra begins playing, Bugs enters as the barber who is going to make sure that Elmer will get a grooming he will never forget. Immediately recognizable and delightfully energetic, The Rabbit of Seville, created in 1950, catapulted The Barber of Seville into the popular lexicon.
In 1952, Tex Avery directed an animated short film titled Magical Maestro produced by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cartoon studio. It tells the story of the Great Poochini (a reference to the famous composer, Giacomo Puccini), a canine opera singer (played by Butch Dog) who spurns a magician name Mysto. Getting his revenge, Mysto is able to replace Poochini's normal conductor prior to the show through disguise. During the performance, in which Poochini sings the aria Largo al Factotum, Mysto unleashes a variety of tricks with his wand. He begins tamely by summoning rabbits and flowers, then turning Poochini into a ballet dancer, Indian, tennis player, prisoner rock-breaker and football player.
Warner Bros. released One Froggy Evening in 1955 as part of their Merrie Melodies series of cartoons. This short film marks the debut of the character Michael J. Frog and contained a wide variety of musical entertainment, with songs ranging from Hello! Ma Baby and I'm Just Wild About Harry, two Tin Pan Alley classics, and Largo al Factotum from The Barber of Seville. In the Chuck Jones biography “Extremes & Inbetweens: A Life In Animation”, Steven Spielberg called One Froggy Evening "the Citizen Kane of animated film."
Not to be forgotten, the ever popular Tom and Jerry cartoons also made use of Largo al Factotum in The Cat Above and the Mouse Below, produced by Chuck jones in 1964. In this short, Tom is a famous legendary baritone singer. While singing the aria onstage, Tom awakens Jerry, who is trying to sleep below the stage, with his operatic tones. Jerry tries all kinds of ways to get Tom to stop singing. First he uses a hammer to pound a floorboard, shooting Tom out of his tuxedo into the air. Jerry then holds up a sign through the vent onstage that has "PSST" written on it. Tom continues singing as he pokes his head in, and Jerry snaps his lips closed in a pucker with a doubled rubber band. The cat and mouse game continues until Jerry unintentionally drops a huge sandbag on Tom as he is reaching the climax, sending him crashing through the floor. When Jerry walks out in a tuxedo, the mouse is above, and the cat stuck below. Jerry wins by singing the last section of the performance himself.
Over the years, animation studios have introduced generations of children to opera in general and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville in particular. Besides the cartoons mentioned here, many others have used portions of the aria Largo al Factotum, including Rhapsody Rabbit, Long-Haired Hare, You Ought To Be In Pictures, Notes To You and Back Alley Oproar.
It’s no wonder so many people, when asked to sing an opera tune, immediately launch into “Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Fi-i-i-igaro-o-o-o!”
Don’t miss your opportunity to see The Barber of Seville in concert with the Santa Cruz Symphony on Nov. 5 & 6, featuring soloists from the New York Metropolitan Opera.
Note: Links to the above referenced cartoons, available in full or in part online.