Skip to comments.Anna Russell — obituary
Posted on 10/22/2006 5:44:11 PM PDT by dighton
Anna Russell, who died in New South Wales on Wednesday aged 94, trained at the Royal College of Music and hoped to become an operatic diva; instead she turned her talents to comedy, becoming famous as the Queen of Musical Parody.
Anna Russell bore a striking resemblance to Hermione Gingold in both her appearance and in her deadpan manner; her personality was once described as that of a flamboyant society hostess in which stirs the soul of a fishwife.
But her comedy was based on a thorough familiarity with her raw material, enabling her to capture the idiom of a variety of musical styles with deadly precision. There were few forms of vocal expression that she did not tap for their comic possibilities, be it madrigal, Lieder, folk, hey nonny no, French chanson or blues; but in particular she looked to grand opera.
Anna Russells most famous set piece was a 30-minute comedic distillation of Wagners 20-hour Ring Cycle, an affectionate but brutal exposition of the plot, punctuated with musical excerpts and her catchphrase, Im not making this up, you know! (also the title of her autobiography, published in 1985).
Among other passages, the sketch featured Anna Russell delivering a fortissimo snatch of Brunnhildes entry aria Jo-ho-to-ho, after which she would observe laconically: As you can hear, it was obviously not her day. Birgit Nilsson recommended Anna Russells sketch as an ideal introduction for anyone daunted by the real thing.
Anna Claudia Russell-Brown was born at Maida Vale, London, on December 27 1911 into a musical upper middle-class family. One of her grandfathers had won the VC in the Indian Mutiny; her father, a colonel in the Royal Engineers, was an accomplished amateur classical pianist.
A gawky, unattractive child, Anna was nicknamed Toad and suffered from her mothers hostility towards her. The chief influences in her life were a cast of eccentric godmothers, great-aunts and grandmothers with whom she was often sent to stay. Perhaps the most colourful was her paternal grandmother, who had moved from her native Australia to Nice, where she took unjustified pride in a mastery of the French language. She made pronouncements such as Je me couche entre deux matelots when she meant mattresses; or ordering un gateaux le mème que ma derrière in a café.
Her most famous flight of fractured French came when she was being driven in a fly (a horse-drawn carriage): thinking that the spring had broken, she ordered the coachman: Cochon, Cochon! Descendez de votre boîte. Le printemps de votre mouche est cassé.
Annas favourite female relation was a godmother who encouraged her interest in music, and noted her comedic talent. This godmother informed Annas mother: She turns out pages of ridiculous verse all the time, sets them to tunes and sings them to a ukulele.
Anna was educated at St Felix School at Southwold, Suffolk, at Harrogate College and in Brussels and Paris. As a teenager she had a good singing voice until someone hit her with a hockey stick and broke her nose, leaving her with a tinny timbre in her middle register which she could never shake off. Refusing to be deterred from her ambition to become an opera singer, she spent five years at the Royal College of Music, studying singing, piano, composition (under Vaughan Williams) and cello.
Although she was the despair of her tutors (the director of the college, Sir Hugh Allen, suggested after a particularly dismal vocal performance that she should audition at the London Palladium), she spent several unrewarding years as a soprano on the concert circuit, giving folk song recitals on the BBC and touring with small opera companies.
Though forced to concede that she would never make the grade, she woke up to the comic possibilities of opera seria after tripping over on stage during a performance of Cavalleria Rusticana, bringing the set and the house down.
When war broke out, Anna went to live with relatives in Toronto, where she sold hamburgers and worked in a chorus line. But I knew I didnt look good in tights and got out, she later recalled.
Her career in musical comedy began after she was invited at the last minute to speak at a music teachers convention. Her hastily prepared, intentionally humorous talk on the art of singing was a success, and she was soon giving music depreciation classes on the stand-up comedy circuit. Anna Russells first one-woman show as a parodist was sponsored by the Toronto Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire in 1942, though it was the Canadian conductor Sir Ernest MacMillan who really set her on her international career as a musical cartoonist when he invited her to take part in his annual burlesque Christmas Box Symphony Concert in 1944.
Soon she was touring the United States, making her Carnegie Hall debut in 1947 and later appearing on Broadway in Anna Russells Little Show (1955) and All by Myself (1960). Her recitals until 1953 usually accompanied by John Coveart continued into the 1980s with tours of North America, Britain, South Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong and Australia. A concert at the Albert Hall in 1957 was a sell-out, and she made return visits on several occasions in the 1960s and 1970s.
Apart from her Ring Cycle routine, audience favourites included Introduction to the Concert by the President of the Womens Club; Wind Instruments I Have Known, in which she would bring out an undressed bagpipe and ask the audience after a suggestive pause to guess what it was; and How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera, a sketch based on the premise that, since G&S wrote to a formula, anyone else could do it too.
Anna Russell continued to make occasional appearances in mainstream opera and operetta, for example playing the Witch in a San Francisco Opera production of Hansel and Gretel in 1957.
This year Anna Russell was the subject of All the Right Notes, Not Necessarily in the Right Order, a Radio 4 profile by Rainer Hersch.
Anna Russell was twice married, first to John Denison and secondly to Charles Goldhamer. Neither marriage lasted, and in her Whos Who entry she described herself as single.
In old age she moved to Sydney, Australia, where she lived with her adopted daughter, Deirdre Prussak, author of Anna in a Thousand Cities, a memoir of Anna Russells life.
I have her CD! "I'm not making this up, you know."
I have the CD, too. It's one of the best analyses of Wagner's "Ring" operas anywhere. (I thought she was already gone.)
I saw her perform live in LA back in the late 70's. She served up the Wagner sketch as an encore.
May she rest in peace.
I remember one of her albums from a few decades ago. Very funny. She did a parody with an opera called "Anemia." LOL.
A delightful woman. I never had the pleasure of hearing her in a live performance, but if anyone is interested in seeing a DVD of many highlights from her career, Netflilx will rent you one.
I had thought her gone long ago.
Im not making this up, you know.
All three parts available. Part one here.
What a great lady! I'm sure she has St. Peter in stitches.
If she did nothing else she deserves immortality for that line.
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It's always sad when we lose people who made us laugh. A rare and precious talent. She will be missed.
Poor lady. She probably would have given anything to have had her mother's love. RIP.
When life plays a nasty joke on you...play one back. God bless you "Toad."
The Victor Borge of opera. A very funny lady.
Thanks for the link. I just ran through all three part; I never saw it before.
What I remember is a bit about how Fricka is put out, its not enough that Wotan has Erda for his trollop, shes got to put up with all those shrieking Valkuries on horses dragging bloody corpses about her house.
I can't watch too much of it at once - my ribs hurt from laughing too hard.
I have a friend who is a Wagner fiend .. . I have to make her watch this!
. . . the only woman that Siegfried has ever seen that isn't his Aunt . . .
And named them all Debbie.
"SHE's the one that should have been careful!"
Thank you for the link. I also watched all three parts, and it is one of the funniest routines I have ever seen. Thanks!
Why her? Why not Babs???
I just watched all three parts. I shall have to buy the CD
Rest in peace Anna.
You know, of course, that now I am going to have to do a Gilbert & Sullivan song parody. Maybe something from the Mikado.
"I've got a little Liszt.
I've got a little Liszt.
Some Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, too.
I've got a little Liszt."
Believe it or not, Cosima Liszt, Franz Liszt's daughter, had three chilren by Richard Wagner (Isolde, Eva and Siegfried) while still married to Hans von Bülow. She later married Wagner who was 24 years her senior. I'm not making this stuff up you know.
Well, I did make up the little ditty above but not the stuff about Liszt and Wagner.
Garde la Foi, mes amis! Nous nous sommes les sauveurs de la République! Maintenant et Toujours!
(Keep the Faith, my friends! We are the saviors of the Republic! Now and Forever!)
LonePalm, le Républicain du verre cassé (The Broken Glass Republican)