NY Times Obituary of a Wonderful Operatic Satirist: Anna Russell
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
Published: October 20, 2006
Anna Russell, the prima donna of operatic parody who claimed to have begun her career as “leading soprano of the Ellis Island Opera Company,” who said she learned to play the French horn from an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and who gave indelibly grating performances of a song she identified as Blotz’s “Schlumpf” to demonstrate what it is like to sing with “no voice but great art,” died on Wednesday in Bateman’s Bay, New South Wales, Australia. She was 94.
Her death was confirmed by her adopted daughter, Deirdre Prussak, in an interview with the Australian ABC radio network, quoted on its Web site.
Ms. Russell’s most enduring creations, now a half-century old, were associated with the most cultic portions of the art music repertory — the works of Wagner and those of Gilbert and Sullivan. Her routines are still regularly invoked even though they can only be sampled on decades-old recordings of her performances.
Merely by telling the plot of Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelungs” in a voice laced with Edwardian-era class and postwar-era sarcasm, Ms. Russell affectionately sullied opera’s most devotional experience.
“I’m not making this up, you know,” she said when her account of the plot seemed to become particularly outrageous. That became her tag line — and the title of her 1985 autobiography.
Similarly, her instructions about “How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera” seemed to deflate the reputation for wit and effervescent fantasy the operettas had acquired. She provided “all the necessary ingredients” for do-it-yourselfers, offering a model prime example. She stirred together patter song and madrigal, paternal stubbornness and young love, class snobbery and babes switched at birth and led her star-crossed heroine, Pneumonia Vanderfeller, to happiness and ever-greater wealth.
It was, though, not as a pedagogue, musicologist, singer, analyst and critic that she made her mark, but as an entertainer. In her first major successful season, 1952-53, she performed in 37 cities in the Unites States and Canada before an estimated 100,000 listeners. Her recording “Anna Russell Sings?” became a best seller.
She was seen on television, Broadway, in film and on the opera stage, including appearances as the Witch in a New York City Opera production of “Hansel and Gretel.” By the late 1960’s, she had announced her retirement, though she would occasionally emerge, like one of the aging divas she caricatured, for another farewell tour, the last, apparently, about 20 years ago.
In her routines, Ms. Russell tapped into a long tradition of deflating the highly formal manners of the concert hall and its devotees, making fun of bad voices and bad teaching, of all pomp and most circumstance, seeming like a Margaret Dumont figure from the Marx Brothers movies who had decided to join their rambunctious dismantling of pretense. But the affection and knowledge of an insider accompanied the jest, leaving the art form intact — almost. Ms. Russell’s was a career that could only have been a success at a time when classical music culture was near the center of popular awareness and public education.
Ms. Russell was born Claudia Anna Russell-Brown in London, Ontario, in Canada, on Dec. 27, 1911, though she later said she had been born in London, England, where early reports suggest her family had moved six months after her birth.
She was the only child of Colonel Claude Russell-Brown and Beatrice Magdalen Russell-Brown, and grew up in a home in which tradition, and music, ruled. For three generations every male on her father’s side served in the British Army.
“I was thoroughly done as I grew up,” Ms. Russell told The New York Times in 1953, “I was presented at court in 1934. I was a debutante. I was exposed to all the likely looking young men in the hope that one of them would marry me.” One did, but the marriage was not a success. She later married Charles Goldhammer, an artist and teacher; the marriage was reported to have ended in 1954.
Ms. Russell gave a number of explanations for why her ambitions changed from being a serious singer to being a serious satirist. Ms. Russell said that one factor was that when she was 16, bones in her face were broken by a hockey stick: “That ruined my acoustic.”
“I had no range, no color,” she said, “But I could sing loud. And it grew louder and louder and awfuller and awfuller.”
That did not prevent her from singing folk songs on the BBC or studying at the Royal Academy. The main inspirational trauma for her career may have been a British touring company production of Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” in which she sang Santuzza as a substitute. The tenor, who was supposed to shove her, did not expect her considerable girth and fell backward. She herself then tripped and literally brought the house down, the sets collapsing to the accompaniment of an audience roaring with laughter.
The performance was brought to an end. “So was my career,” she said. “My life’s work was shattered, after five years of hard preparation . . . But I got over it.”
On her first trip to New York, in 1947, she was initially met with skepticism. “No one knew what to do with my kind of satire,” she said. “One agent told me, ‘You can’t do it in a nightclub, and you’re not pretty enough to be on Broadway.’ ” The key to satirizing concert life, it turns out, was to do it in concert.
After retiring in the late 1960’s, Ms. Russell lived in Unionville, just north of Toronto, on a street named after her. She later moved to be with her adopted daughter in Australia, where she tried to establish a catering business.
In the 1970’s and 80’s, Ms. Russell would occasionally come out of retirement, like one of the aging divas she caricatured, for another “farewell tour” and the cheers of fans who did not mind her failing voice. She said that a friend told her: “It doesn’t matter what you sound like. You were no Lily Pons anyway.”