Anna Russell, 1911-2006

“I’m not making this up, you know.” That’s how Anna Russell always responded at one point or other to the chuckles, titters, and outright belly-laughs that interrupted her uproariously funny but cruelly accurate synopsis of Wagner’s monumental The Ring of the Nibelungs, complete with major characters and leitmotifs, sung or played on the piano. How does an operatic soprano (a crowded field) without physical beauty or a gorgeous voice (Ms. Russell’s voice was more the sort that could cut steel) succeed in the musical world? Comedy.

And for years Anna Russell succeeded in making people laugh with her hysterical performances.

I learned to my sorrow yesterday that Anna Russell died on Wednesday at the age of 94:

Anna Russell, 94, who spoofed and honored the worlds of opera and classical music with her comic yet knowledgeable musical parodies, died Oct. 18 at her home in Batemans Bay, Australia. No cause of death was reported.

Miss Russell was a well-trained singer of admittedly limited talent — “My voice has been variously described as sounding like shattering glass or a cracked temple bell” — who found her niche in comedy through a combination of misfortune and good timing.

Performing as a substitute soprano in a 1930s British production of Pietro Mascagni’s “Cavalleria Rusticana,” Miss Russell was supposed to be hurled to the floor in one scene by a diminutive tenor.

Rather stout, even in her younger years, she twisted her ankle and reeled across the stage until she crashed into the scenery, sending it tumbling down around her. The audience and orchestra laughed so hard that the performance came to premature end — and, so Miss Russell feared, had her career.

But with a natural comic instinct, she began to write and perform musical spoofs that gained a wide following among musicians and the public. From the 1950s to the 1980s, she made best-selling recordings, appeared on television and performed in sold-out concerts around the world.

Over the years I attended a number of Ms. Russell’s performances and they were always fresh, entertaining, and hilarious. Even when, as she noted, the audience probably knew some of her routines better than she did.

Routines like “How to be a soprano” and “How to write your own Gilbert & Sullivan operetta” weren’t only funny. They were a breathtakingly accurate send-up of whatever she was lampooning.

Now there won’t be any new Anna Russell routines but her old routines live on in her many recordings and I’m certain that future generations will be silently mouthing the words along with her, vainly trying to hold back their laughter.

3 comments… add one
  • Thank you for posting this article about Anna Russell. Reading your post was the first I had heard of her death.

    Her recordings are played on CBC Radio 2 from time to time up here in Canada. Thank goodness for all of the recordings that were made to immortalize her humour and unique take on the world of opera.

    Any serious student of voice should listen to Anna’s recordings, if not for study, simply for the pleasure of listening to her interpretations (and, a good laugh, of course).

    There were a few recordings in the Don Wright Faculty of Music library, all on vinyl, I believe. Everyone, be sure to check your local library or music library for her recordings!

    Again, thank you for breaking the news to me and others who have found this blog posting before hearing the news via other mediums.


    Stephanie Ciccarelli

  • I too am sorry to learn of this. Her Ring sendup fractured me many years ago. What an admirable life she led. RIP.

Leave a Comment