As far as I am
concerned, it is fitting, in this special Bikwil issue devoted to Rings
and things, to pay tribute to a Wagner fan who, to her eternal credit,
instead of retreating into obscurity as a failed opera soprano, chose to
devote her life to showing us the funny side of music.
there've been several entertainers this century with whom we associate
the idea of musical jokes. Perhaps the best known are Victor Borge (“Why
are the keys on my piano so yellow? The elephant smoked too much”) and
the immortal Gerard Hoffnung, whose cartoons inspired concert works like
Malcolm Arnold's Grand Festival Overture for Hoovers and Optional
Floor Polisher. And you'll be familiar, no doubt, with the Dudley
Moore parodies Little Miss Muffett and Die Flabbergast. In
similar vein are the works of P.D.Q. Bach, like The Civilian Barber,
Hansel and Gretel and Ted and Alice (an Opera in One Unnatural Act)
and Fanfare for the Common Cold.
Hollywood stars, too, have lampooned music. Have you ever seen Tom and
Jerry doing Bizet's Carmen? Or Bugs Bunny doing Liszt's Hungarian
Rhapsody No. 2? And who could forget Bugs' What's Opera, Doc?
That cartoon won an Oscar, and guess whose music it had a go at most?
of course, has been the butt of satire since at least the 1870s. None
came any funnier than the 1882 review (A
Gripping Drama, Replete with Punch) we have reproduced in this
well, there were scads of 19th century press cartoons, most directed at
Wagner’s personal arrogance and lavish orchestration —
swelled-headedness, fancy clothes, gigantic tubas and drums, harps
played by garden rakes . . .
to this day a caricature of Brünnhilde's horned headgear is the
universal symbol for grand opera or large sopranos, as that couple of
Wagnerian camp vamps Lorenzo Jordan and Claude Arias demonstrated in
brings me back nicely (dare I say "full cycle"?) to our
heroine of the moment — Anna Claudia Russell-Brown, born in England 88
years ago into an upper middle-class musical family. Her father was an
accomplished amateur classical pianist, and extremely fond of Gilbert
and Sullivan. Her great-aunt was an opera singer, and indeed was so
impressed by the young Anna's voice, she insisted that one day she too
become an opera singer. In the meantime, she took Anna, aged twelve, to
the première performance in 1923 of Walton's Façade, and the
latter immediately fell in love with Edith Sitwell's nonsense poems.
the time for serious music study arrived, Anna put in five hard years at
the London Royal College of Music doing singing, as well as piano,
composition and cello. Her composition teachers included Vaughan
Williams, who used to say things like, "Well, that's a very nice
piece of Debussy you've brought me this week. What are you going to do
next week — Handel?"
her voice had already been damaged on the playing field at boarding
school, where she was
. . whacked over the face with a hockey stick (quite by accident) . . .
[it] broke my nose and my cheekbone, and it all had to be reconditioned
from the inside, and it ruined my acoustics . . .
after several unrewarding years as a soprano on the concert circuit, she
reluctantly came to accept something important about her studies at the
Royal College: that "if you go there with a tin voice, you'll come
out with a loud tin voice".
what to do? Keep performing? Teach? Well, yes and no.
first foray into musical parody was a pair of songs she wrote for radio
while she was stuck in Toronto during World War II. They were entitled Don
Bonzo Alfonzo the Matador (with castanets) and I'd Be a Red-Hot
Mama If I Hadn't Got These Varicose Veins. But it was Canadian
conductor, Sir Ernest MacMillan who really set her off on a career as a
"musical cartoonist", when he invited her to take part in his
annual burlesque-style Christmas Box Symphony Concerts.
she was on tour of North America, with such originals as Anaemia's
Death Scene and I Gave My Love a Cherry without Any Pit. The
latter was a folksong in which she accompanied herself on Irish harp,
which instrument she'd learnt especially. For obscure reasons the harp
was impounded by customs in Detroit, so she mimed the harp part on that
occasion. The new version was an immediate hit, becoming a regular part
of the show.
she decided to develop a routine on how to play the bagpipes. First she
had to learn the instrument (with some difficulty and much merriment),
. . [h]aving got this far I had to write the talk, so I looked up
bagpipes in the Encyclopedia Britannica, and there it all was . .
. In the nearly forty years I have dome this routine, I have always
announced my source, but no one seems to believe me, and yet I have yet
to meet anyone who has checked on it . . . I've given the Encyclopedia
Britannica so much free advertising they ought really to have
presented me with a complimentary set.
course, Anna Russell's most famous routine and her masterpiece — and
this is her relevance in these particular pages — is her
"analysis" of Der Ring des Nibelungen, a work she
described as "the only grand opera that comes in the giant economy
size", and whose singers she characterised this way:
be a dramatic soprano, requires not so much the attributes of a singer
as those of a successful auctioneer or hog caller. I mean, to blast your
way through a Wagnerian orchestra . . . a beautiful tone is an absolute
waste of time. You're much better off with the factory whistle or buzz
saw type of voice — with a good cutting edge.
Russell took great pains while preparing her Ring routine:
read every book I could find on Wagner, went through the analysis of the
music and the translation of the libretto, and pared it all down to a
twenty-minute routine . . . I often think I could do another talk about
all the things I had to leave out, like the Tarnhelm, the Treasure, the
Spear, Nothung the sword. I don't mention Donner, Loge, or Froh, or that
Wotan lost the same eye on three occasions. There was Mime, Alberich's
brother who brought Siegfried up, and all the cries, by the Valkyries,
the Rhine Maidens, and Hagen, who is the only fellow with a downward cry
and the only one among all these people wearing a helmet with horns
turning down . . . Some people were shocked that I would send up this
august piece of music, but I don't consider it a sendup. I merely tell
the story as accurately as possible and play the bits of music exactly
as written. I can't help it if the story is absurd.
Ernest Newman (a prominent Wagner expert) commented on her accuracy, and
from then on
. . . the routine
became respectable, and it is now in the curriculum of a number of
universities where The Ring is studied.
whole routine lasts about 22 minutes on CD. After a short intro about
the need for Ring information for ordinary people, she goes on:
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
Rhinemaidens, a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters.
all the fun she brings to it, it’s obvious just how much affection
Anna Russell has for the Ring. But the real feature of her
performance is that it serves two audiences at once. Those unacquainted
with the Ring do receive, in the words of the CD liner notes,
"an accurate musical and dramatic analysis". On the other
hand, the more you know about the Ring, the more hilarious her
way, you can't lose.
only does she succinctly narrate the whole tortured story, she also
explains the leitmotivs, and sings in her unique voice some of the more
energetic vocal numbers, accompanying herself all the while at the
piano. Particularly telling is her 13-second "duet" between
Siegfried and Brünnhilde (from Siegfried), where she manages to
give the impression of both a male and a female voice. And her Alberich
is simply marvellous. Her timing for her gags is superb, too, as is her
tone of voice when she wants to accentuate some especially preposterous
aspect of the Ring.
recording in question is a live performance, in New York, dating from
1953. It's obviously an audience not fully conversant with Wagner, as
you can hear from their rather bemused giggles at the start, then their
more involved response as they warm to Anna Russell, and finally their
CD is called The Anna Russell Album (Sony MDK 47252), and
includes seven other shorter pieces of satire, plus another long skit, How
to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera. A mere $16, this CD,
and a joy to own. A second Anna Russell album entitled Encore? (Sony
SFK 60316) is also available
what do you know? There’s a 47-minute video too, for those whose VCRs
can playback in NTSC VHS format: Anna Russell, the Clown Princess of
Comedy. US$30 + postage from Barnes and Noble.
Russell in Australia?
her paternal great-grandfather Andrew Russell was an early colonist from
Glasgow, who in 1840 published a diary called A Tour of the
Australian Colonies, so she was always keen to visit. Her first tour
took place in 1955-6, then another in the 1960s, during which she
installed herself in a house on one of the artificial islands in
spite of its charming aspect, [it] . . . was suburbia, and there is
nothing more suburban than the suburbs of Sydney. It was dullsville
later sold up at a handsome profit, and moved to an apartment in North
Sydney overlooking the harbour. In all, she lived in Australia eight and
a half years.
1985 she published her autobiography, aptly entitled I’m Not Making
This Up, You Know (ISBN 0 8264 0364 6).
days Anna Russell lives in a retirement complex in Ontario, inside which
there is a street named after her — Anna Russell Way. But despite her
age her mind is as sharp as ever, and she still travels now and then.
Last March she was in Australia again, where she proudly told the ABC's
Margaret Throsby that she is at present learning Cantonese.