Anna Russell
[ Issue 10 ]

Emily Bronto is definitely one of Anna Russell’s many fans

Bikwil honours Anna Russell

Anna Russell

Olive Conduit here introduces us to Anna Russell, music parodist par excellence.  As is to be expected, she gives plenty of coverage to Russell's hilarious treatment of Wagner's Ring

Particularly telling is her 13-second "duet" between Siegfried and Brünnhilde (from Siegfried), where she manages to give the impression of both a male and a female voice

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The Tin Voice Laughed — Olive Conduit


As far as I am concerned, it is fitting, in this special Bikwil issue devoted to Rings and things, to pay tribute to a Wagner fan who, to her eternal credit, instead of retreating into obscurity as a failed opera soprano, chose to devote her life to showing us the funny side of music.

Now, there've been several entertainers this century with whom we associate the idea of musical jokes. Perhaps the best known are Victor Borge (“Why are the keys on my piano so yellow? The elephant smoked too much”) and the immortal Gerard Hoffnung, whose cartoons inspired concert works like Malcolm Arnold's Grand Festival Overture for Hoovers and Optional Floor Polisher. And you'll be familiar, no doubt, with the Dudley Moore parodies Little Miss Muffett and Die Flabbergast. In similar vein are the works of P.D.Q. Bach, like The Civilian Barber, Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice (an Opera in One Unnatural Act) and Fanfare for the Common Cold.

Animated Hollywood stars, too, have lampooned music. Have you ever seen Tom and Jerry doing Bizet's Carmen? Or Bugs Bunny doing Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2? And who could forget Bugs' What's Opera, Doc? That cartoon won an Oscar, and guess whose music it had a go at most?

Wagner, of course, has been the butt of satire since at least the 1870s. None came any funnier than the 1882 review (A Gripping Drama, Replete with Punch) we have reproduced in this issue.

As well, there were scads of 19th century press cartoons, most directed at Wagner’s personal arrogance and lavish orchestration — swelled-headedness, fancy clothes, gigantic tubas and drums, harps played by garden rakes . . .

And to this day a caricature of Brünnhilde's horned headgear is the universal symbol for grand opera or large sopranos, as that couple of Wagnerian camp vamps Lorenzo Jordan and Claude Arias demonstrated in Australia recently.

Which brings me back nicely (dare I say "full cycle"?) to our heroine of the moment — Anna Claudia Russell-Brown, born in England 88 years ago into an upper middle-class musical family. Her father was an accomplished amateur classical pianist, and extremely fond of Gilbert and Sullivan. Her great-aunt was an opera singer, and indeed was so impressed by the young Anna's voice, she insisted that one day she too become an opera singer. In the meantime, she took Anna, aged twelve, to the première performance in 1923 of Walton's Façade, and the latter immediately fell in love with Edith Sitwell's nonsense poems.

When the time for serious music study arrived, Anna put in five hard years at the London Royal College of Music doing singing, as well as piano, composition and cello. Her composition teachers included Vaughan Williams, who used to say things like, "Well, that's a very nice piece of Debussy you've brought me this week. What are you going to do next week — Handel?"

But her voice had already been damaged on the playing field at boarding school, where she was

. . . whacked over the face with a hockey stick (quite by accident) . . . [it] broke my nose and my cheekbone, and it all had to be reconditioned from the inside, and it ruined my acoustics . . .

So, after several unrewarding years as a soprano on the concert circuit, she reluctantly came to accept something important about her studies at the Royal College: that "if you go there with a tin voice, you'll come out with a loud tin voice".

So, what to do? Keep performing? Teach? Well, yes and no.

Her first foray into musical parody was a pair of songs she wrote for radio while she was stuck in Toronto during World War II. They were entitled Don Bonzo Alfonzo the Matador (with castanets) and I'd Be a Red-Hot Mama If I Hadn't Got These Varicose Veins. But it was Canadian conductor, Sir Ernest MacMillan who really set her off on a career as a "musical cartoonist", when he invited her to take part in his annual burlesque-style Christmas Box Symphony Concerts.

Soon she was on tour of North America, with such originals as Anaemia's Death Scene and I Gave My Love a Cherry without Any Pit. The latter was a folksong in which she accompanied herself on Irish harp, which instrument she'd learnt especially. For obscure reasons the harp was impounded by customs in Detroit, so she mimed the harp part on that occasion. The new version was an immediate hit, becoming a regular part of the show.

Later she decided to develop a routine on how to play the bagpipes. First she had to learn the instrument (with some difficulty and much merriment), then,

. . . [h]aving got this far I had to write the talk, so I looked up bagpipes in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and there it all was . . . In the nearly forty years I have dome this routine, I have always announced my source, but no one seems to believe me, and yet I have yet to meet anyone who has checked on it . . . I've given the Encyclopedia Britannica so much free advertising they ought really to have presented me with a complimentary set.

Of course, Anna Russell's most famous routine and her masterpiece — and this is her relevance in these particular pages — is her "analysis" of Der Ring des Nibelungen, a work she described as "the only grand opera that comes in the giant economy size", and whose singers she characterised this way:

To be a dramatic soprano, requires not so much the attributes of a singer as those of a successful auctioneer or hog caller. I mean, to blast your way through a Wagnerian orchestra . . . a beautiful tone is an absolute waste of time. You're much better off with the factory whistle or buzz saw type of voice — with a good cutting edge.

Anna Russell took great pains while preparing her Ring routine:

I read every book I could find on Wagner, went through the analysis of the music and the translation of the libretto, and pared it all down to a twenty-minute routine . . . I often think I could do another talk about all the things I had to leave out, like the Tarnhelm, the Treasure, the Spear, Nothung the sword. I don't mention Donner, Loge, or Froh, or that Wotan lost the same eye on three occasions. There was Mime, Alberich's brother who brought Siegfried up, and all the cries, by the Valkyries, the Rhine Maidens, and Hagen, who is the only fellow with a downward cry and the only one among all these people wearing a helmet with horns turning down . . . Some people were shocked that I would send up this august piece of music, but I don't consider it a sendup. I merely tell the story as accurately as possible and play the bits of music exactly as written. I can't help it if the story is absurd.

Later Ernest Newman (a prominent Wagner expert) commented on her accuracy, and from then on

. . . the routine became respectable, and it is now in the curriculum of a number of universities where The Ring is studied.

The whole routine lasts about 22 minutes on CD. After a short intro about the need for Ring information for ordinary people, she goes on:

The scene opens in the River Rhine — in it. If it were in New York, it would be like the Hudson. And swimming around there are the three Rhinemaidens, a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters.

For all the fun she brings to it, it’s obvious just how much affection Anna Russell has for the Ring. But the real feature of her performance is that it serves two audiences at once. Those unacquainted with the Ring do receive, in the words of the CD liner notes, "an accurate musical and dramatic analysis". On the other hand, the more you know about the Ring, the more hilarious her treatment appears.

Either way, you can't lose.

Not only does she succinctly narrate the whole tortured story, she also explains the leitmotivs, and sings in her unique voice some of the more energetic vocal numbers, accompanying herself all the while at the piano. Particularly telling is her 13-second "duet" between Siegfried and Brünnhilde (from Siegfried), where she manages to give the impression of both a male and a female voice. And her Alberich is simply marvellous. Her timing for her gags is superb, too, as is her tone of voice when she wants to accentuate some especially preposterous aspect of the Ring.

The recording in question is a live performance, in New York, dating from 1953. It's obviously an audience not fully conversant with Wagner, as you can hear from their rather bemused giggles at the start, then their more involved response as they warm to Anna Russell, and finally their unbridled hysteria.

The CD is called The Anna Russell Album (Sony MDK 47252), and includes seven other shorter pieces of satire, plus another long skit, How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera. A mere $16, this CD, and a joy to own. A second Anna Russell album entitled Encore? (Sony SFK 60316) is also available

And what do you know? There’s a 47-minute video too, for those whose VCRs can playback in NTSC VHS format: Anna Russell, the Clown Princess of Comedy. US$30 + postage from Barnes and Noble.

Anna Russell in Australia?

Well, her paternal great-grandfather Andrew Russell was an early colonist from Glasgow, who in 1840 published a diary called A Tour of the Australian Colonies, so she was always keen to visit. Her first tour took place in 1955-6, then another in the 1960s, during which she installed herself in a house on one of the artificial islands in Sylvania Waters.

In spite of its charming aspect, [it] . . . was suburbia, and there is nothing more suburban than the suburbs of Sydney. It was dullsville incarnate.

She later sold up at a handsome profit, and moved to an apartment in North Sydney overlooking the harbour. In all, she lived in Australia eight and a half years.

In 1985 she published her autobiography, aptly entitled I’m Not Making This Up, You Know (ISBN 0 8264 0364 6).

These days Anna Russell lives in a retirement complex in Ontario, inside which there is a street named after her — Anna Russell Way. But despite her age her mind is as sharp as ever, and she still travels now and then. Last March she was in Australia again, where she proudly told the ABC's Margaret Throsby that she is at present learning Cantonese.

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