B0157. ANNA RUSSELL. I'm not making this up, you know [Autobiography]. New York, Continuum, 1985. 246pp. Photos; DJ. (0-8264-0364-6)
"Anna Russell, the prima donna of operatic parody who claimed to have been the 'prima donna of the Ellis Island Opera House', who said she learned to play the French horn from an article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and who gave indelibly grating performances of a song she identified as Blotz’s 'Schlumpf' to demonstrate what it is like to sing with 'no voice but great art', died on 18 Oct., 2006, in Bateman’s Bay, New South Wales, Australia. She was 94. Ms. Russell’s most enduring creations, now a half-century old, were associated with the most cultic portions of the art music repertory — the works of Wagner and those of Gilbert and Sullivan. Her routines are still regularly invoked even though they can only be sampled on decades-old recordings of her performances. Merely by telling the plot of Wagner’s RING OF THE NIBELUNGS in a voice laced with Edwardian-era class and postwar-era sarcasm, Ms. Russell affectionately sullied opera’s most devotional experience. 'I’m not making this up, you know', she said when her account of the plot seemed to become particularly outrageous. That became her tag line — and the title of her 1985 autobiography. Ms. Russell tapped into a long tradition of deflating the highly formal manners of the concert hall and its devotees, making fun of bad voices and bad teaching, of all pomp and most circumstance, seeming like a Margaret Dumont figure from the Marx Brothers movies who had decided to join their rambunctious dismantling of pretense. But the affection and knowledge of an insider accompanied the jest, leaving the art form intact — almost. Ms. Russell’s was a career that could only have been a success at a time when classical music culture was near the center of popular awareness and public education. Ms. Russell was born Claudia Anna Russell-Brown in London, Ontario, in Canada, on Dec. 27, 1911, though she later said she had been born in London, England, where early reports suggest her family had moved six months after her birth. 'I had no range, no color', she said, 'But I could sing loud. And it grew louder and louder and awfuller and awfuller'. That did not prevent her from singing folk songs on the BBC or studying at the Royal Academy. The main inspirational trauma for her career may have been a British touring company production of Mascagni’s CAVALLERIA RUSTICANA, in which she sang Santuzza as a substitute. The tenor, who was supposed to shove her, did not expect her considerable girth and fell backward. She herself then tripped and literally brought the house down, the sets collapsing to the accompaniment of an audience roaring with laughter. The performance was brought to an end. 'So was my career', she said. 'My life’s work was shattered, after five years of hard preparation . . . But I got over it'. In the 1970’s and 80’s, Ms. Russell would occasionally come out of retirement, like one of the aging divas she caricatured, for another 'farewell tour' and the cheers of fans who did not mind her failing voice. She said that a friend told her: ‘It doesn’t matter what you sound like. You were no Lily Pons anyway’."
- Edward Rothstein, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 20 Oct., 2006