Anna Russell; Singer Found Fame in Satire

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 21, 2006

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.

Miss Russell became a beloved figure for her knowing satires of musical techniques, pretentious singers and, perhaps most memorably, the operas of Richard Wagner. Audiences often joined in as Miss Russell began her vivid dissection of Wagner's "The Ring of the Nibelung": "The story opens in the River Rhine. In it."

Describing Siegfried, the hero of the "Ring" cycle, Miss Russell said, "He's very strong and he's very brave and he's very handsome and he's very stupid."

Of the helmet-headed Valkyries, she said: "They are the noisiest people. They're all of them virgins, and I'm not the least bit surprised."

Pausing for effect, Miss Russell would recite her signature line, which became the title of her autobiography: "I'm not making this up, you know."

Donning an array of hats, she sang every role, from soprano to basso profundo, in operas both real and imagined. She imitated flamenco and torch singers, performed all four parts of four-part madrigals, played the piano and French horn, and demonstrated the bagpipes -- "a very unsanitary instrument" -- in a segment called "Wind Instruments I Have Known."

Miss Russell composed mock German lieder, or art songs -- a favorite was "Schlumpf" by Blotz -- to illustrate her point about lieder singers: "They are judged like cheese; the older and rottener they are, the better."

She "discovered" a new opera by Verdi called "Hamletto," which she sang simultaneously in English and Italian; invented heroines such as "Pneumonia Vanderfeller"; and performed versions of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" as if arranged by Schubert ("Nacht und Tag") or Handel ("O Night! O Day!").

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