Thursday, April 17, 2008

"I'm Not Making This Up, You Know..."

"I think Shakespeare summed it up so beautifully in his play Caelius Jusier... (titters at her mistake) I'm sorry... Culius Jaesar... (annoyed at the audience) MACBETH! ....where he said, 'If music be the food of love, play on...' He didn't say on what but I think it's a marvelous idea."

So encants the haughty harridan introducing the guest performer in Anna Russell's "Introduction to the Concert (By the Women's Club President)." I discovered Russell entirely by accident while searching for music in college. I was looking for an aria of some sort. I can't remember exactly which one, but I entered 'coloratura' into the search engine and I saw the listing for "Canto Dolciamente Pipo." Curious, I downloaded it, and then forgot about it for whatever reason. Weeks later I was going through my playlist, and popped up randomly decided to give it a listen. This veddy-veddy British singer with false airs was doing to opera and classical singing what Victor Borge did for the classical piano. I immediately went out and found her first album, The Anna Russell Album?, which quickly became a personal favorite.

The woman fearlessly took on everything from those pretentious musical appreciation societies to coloratura sopranos, to lieder singers, to various folk song styles, etc. Every single parody was her own creation, both in the words and music. She is best known for two pieces. The first is a dead-on parody of Gilbert and Sullivan in "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera," in which she points at that all of the operas are written to a certain formula and you can fill in your own details to make your own. But her ultimate achievement, for which she would receive the most acclaim, was her "The Ring de Nibelungen, An Analysis" in which she does a hilarious dissertation/deconstruction of Wagner's 20 hour opera cycle in 30 minutes, with Russell taking on all major themes and providing wry commentary throughout.

For example:

-- "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 Rhinemaidens…a sort of aquatic Andrews Sisters. Or sometimes they’re called “nixies.” Mairsie-nix and doesie-nix and little nixie-divie. And they sing their signature tune, which is as follows. [Plays and sings] “Weia! Waga! Woge, du Welle, walle zur Wiege! wagala weia! wallala, weiala weia!” I won’t translate it, because it doesn’t mean anything.

The Rhine maidens are looking after a lump of magic gold. And the magic of this gold consists of the fact that anybody who will renounce love and make a ring out of this gold will become Master of the Universe. This is the gimmick."

-- "Well one day who should turn up but Siegmund, and he falls madly in love with Sieglinde, regardless 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 so long as you sing it."

Russell trained as an opera singer, with intensive music training at the Royal College of Music. Her vocal teachers were pretty much completely unimpressed with her sound and quality. She is quoted as saying: “If you go in there with a tin voice, you’ll come out with a loud tin voice.” She toured England in her early career, making a serious attempt at being an opera singer. However, a devastating onstage mishap nearly ended all that.

Per her NY Times obituary:

-- 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.”

She performed on the BBC radio before leaving for Canada at the outbreak of WWII. It is here she began her work as a parodist. She made her NY debut in 1948, briefly brought her show to Broadway in 1953 and toured extensively throughout the world, recording her material, and appearing on various television shows including "The Ed Sullivan Show." She also lent her voice to an animated film of Hansel and Gretl, and played the role at the NYCO in 1954 and San Francisco Opera in 1957. She would later come out of retirement, also part of her act, to parody the aging divas of the opera world who did likewise.

The closing paragraph of the Times obit:

-- 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.”

With the satire, came a profound respect and admiration for the art form which she studied for many years. If she wasn't much of an opera singer, she possessed a superlative wit, a down-to-earth charm and a broad scope of musical idiom that transcended genres. She was also very honest about her own musical talents, playing up her vocal limitations in her concerts, where she claimed to have gotten her start as "the prima donna of the Ellis Island Opera Company" and that her teachers "at one time or other, have ruined my voice."

She lived in retirement in a suburb of Toronto on the aptly named Anna Russell Way until moving to Australia to be with her daughter. It is there that Russell died in October 2006 at the age of 94, leaving behind her legacy of humor and wit and that pink chiffon she always wore...

Here she opens her (final) farewell concert with an anecdote about her outfit:

And here she advises on how to be a professional singer:


Roxie said...

D'you remember Alveric?

hahaa I love me some Anna Russell!!

Mondschein said...

The pink chiffon - OMG!

"...the madrigal. You'll have to forgive me. My four part singing isn't what it used to be."

"A dramatic soprano can actually kill a bowl of goldfish. Did you know that? Did you?"

The local educational radio station always played her Ring Cycle Analysis during their semi-annual begathons. I keep her album on my iPod.

Theatre Aficionado at Large said...

"...Then he starts on Ophelia. She is going steady with Hamlet and... she is a little bit weak in the head.

So naturally, she's a coloratura soprano."