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!").
"Her parodies are so close to the truth," New York Times critic Harold C. Schonberg wrote, "that sometimes they have forever ruined the real thing for some listeners."
She was born as Claudia Russell-Brown in London, Ontario, on Dec. 27, 1911. When she was 6 months old, her family moved to England, where she grew up and became a debutante. Several aunts were musicians and opera singers, and Miss Russell spent four years studying piano, voice, cello and composition at the Royal College of Music. One of her teachers was composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.
In a possibly apocryphal story, Miss Russell claimed her singing career was compromised when her nose was broken by an errant field hockey stick or, as she later said, a hockey puck.
"Certain notes came out in a yodel. It was heartbreaking," she said, before adding: "My idiosyncratic voice, which could parody any kind of vocalism, proved to be a godsend for comedy."
Miss Russell sang with a Canadian opera company and performed English music-hall songs in Great Britain and Canada. But as she began to write humorous arias for fundraisers to benefit the Toronto Symphony in the early 1940s, her comic talents blossomed.
Originally miscast as a nightclub and theater performer, Miss Russell made her American debut in 1947, but not everyone was amused. Mezzo-soprano Jennie Tourel tried unsuccessfully to have her banned from Carnegie Hall, claiming to have been slandered by Miss Russell's parodies.
By the early 1950s, Miss Russell was appearing in sold-out performances all over the globe, and the first of her many albums, "Anna Russell Sings?," was on the charts for 48 weeks. She retired to Australia from 1965 to 1973 before returning to the stage. She gave her final public performances in 1986.
In reviewing Miss Russell's farewell performance at the Kennedy Center in 1984, Washington Post music critic Joseph McLellan wrote: "The chief danger confronting classical music is the pomposity of its advocates -- scholars, performers and critics -- and Russell has long been our chief line of defense against this menace."
She was married and divorced twice. Survivors include an adopted daughter.