"I could have grown a mustache, I suppose," Anna Russell reflected. "Of course, some people do.
"When it happened, I thought, 'My God, what's going to happen? I'm going to go crazy. I'm going to have hot flashes. I'm going to go into a great depression . . .'"
So what happened?
"Well," she said, "At first I thought I'd lost my voice. I used to start out with a great shriek, a high A. So one day I did and nothing happened. But then suddenly I found, 'My god, I haven't lost my voice at all. I've turned into a baritone.'"
So some 40 years after she began, and a whole octave lower, Anna Russell, nee soprano, now baritone (more or less), is still in the concert hall where, she is the first to admit, she never should have been in the first place.
With her tinny voice (her phrase) and her robust humor, the music hall stage would have seemed the place for her.
Anna Russell, 68, is probably this century's first dramatic satirist of classical music, in all its occasional pretensions. She is as devastating as she is hilarious. Devastating because she knows her subject inside out. Hilarious, because, well, because that's the way she is.
In manner Anna Russell seems a polyglot combination of Gilda Radner and Julia child.She has the former's gift for chameleon-like characterization and whoops a bit like -- and looks a lot like -- the latter. For years now she's been the darling of a special sort of opera goers. The ones with a sense of humor. You know, the ones who never miss Saturday Night Live (but never admit it.) The ones who go to the Kennedy Center (Concert Hall, of course) to see Anna Russell perform, as she will Friday night. Anna Russell would be a wow on Saturday Night Live.
Perhaps her most famous act is her transformation of Richard Wagner's heavy 18-hour, four-opera Ring Cycle into a snappy soft-porn soap. It's been around so long she would really like to retire it. But audiences won't let her; they never stop laughing enen when they know it by heart.
"I can't imagine why anyone would want to hear it again," she whoops. But the capacity of Wagner's gods and goddesses to lend themselves to Russell's barbed mercies remain undimmed.
". . .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 Rhine maidens, a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters. . ." --from Russell's Ring.
In part two, "Wotan is wandering around . . . and he has a couple of children by a mortal, Siegmund and Sieglinde. These children become separated at birth and Sieglinde marries Hunding. Well, one day who should turn up but Siegmund and he falls madly in love with Sieglinde regarless of the fact that she's married to Hunding which is immoral and she's his own sister which is illegal, but that's the beauty of grand opera. You can do anything as long as you sing it . . ."
But for a music hall career Russell had the wrong sort of father, a neplus ultra Victorian British Army officer , who thought it quite seemly that she attend the Royal College of Music "to learn how to play and sing nicely while daddy found me a nice husband."
She learned two things at the Royal College, as she, rather breathlessly recalls:
"All that a singing teacher can actually do is make such noise as you've got louder and they can get you to do it so that you don't get laryngitis every time you open your mouth, and thats's all they can do, but if you have a tin voice it will never develop pearshaped tones."
"But while I was studying voice, I was also studying composition and musicology and history of music and all the rest of it, composition with Ralph Vaughan Williams, the British composer . . ."
By the time she was graduated, "I discovered that all you really need to be a glorious singer is a gorgeous voice. All the rest can be fed into you, but all the rest won't do it if you don't have a glorious voice. . ."
So with one thing (no voice) and another (a good bit of musical knowledge), along with her sense of the absurd, the Anna Russell we know today was, so to speak, born.
She does, she says, rather less singing during her shows --which she refers to as concerts -- than she used to, but she's actually doing some real opera herself, much to her own astonishment. (Such roles as the witch in Humperdinck's "Hansel and Gretel" and Duchess of Craquitorpi in Donizetti's "Daughter of the Regiment"). And she's doing some theater too. dA tour of Noel Coward's "Blithe Spirit" is forthcoming this summer.
But she still manages to cram into an evening's "concert," something like
Two operas (one of which is The Ring). An all-purpose, do-it-yourself Gilbert and Sullivan operetta.
Screechy German lieder.
French art songs as in her "jen'ai pas la plume de ma tante," which is a lesson on tipping, and her new one, "Je ne veux pas faire l' amour aujourd'hue (because I'd rather eat).
A woman's club president introducing a guest singer.
And there is a nostalgia bit in which she recalls the re-electronic days, when everyone was her own Galli-Curci or his own Caruso, but "they all seemed to do the same things after dinner. All the sopranos would sing about birds and spring; contraltos would sing about death; tenors about love; baritones, about the sea, and bassos, about drink."
She doesn't do all of them, all the time, and only The Ring is almost always there. Whenver she leaves it off the program "somebody always bitches." One woman was furious because she told Russell, "I saw you do it when I was in college and tonight I brought my daughter and granddaughter to hear you do it. And YOU DIDN'T DO IT!"
"That, says Russell, in her most sonorous baritones, "will never happen again."