The British-born Canadian-American comedienne (1911-2006) Anna Russell gained renown among lovers of classical music in the mid-twentieth century by lampooning the object of their affections in her comedic stage routines and recordings.
“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,” wrote Washington Post music critic Joseph McLellan in 1984, as quoted in a 2006 article in the Post following the performer's death. Indeed, Russell introduced several generations of listeners to classical music even as she skewered it. The primary focus of her comedy was the grandiose art of opera, most especially the works of its most ambitious practitioner, nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner. Russell discovered her comic gift almost by accident, but she expanded on her initial routines consistently over several decades of sellout-level popularity.
Belittled as “Toad”
Given her long association with Canada, Russell's birthplace has sometimes been given, even in obituaries, as London, Ontario, Canada. Citing her birth certificate, however, The Canadian Encyclopedia reported that she was born on December 27, 1911, in London, England. Her birth name was Anna (or Ann) Claudia Russell-Brown, and her father, Claud Russell Brown, was a British military engineer and amateur classical pianist. Russell's mother, Beatrice, was Canadian. She bestowed the unflattering nickname of “Toad” on her awkward daughter, and the relationship between the two was never a happy one. Russell was an only child.
Anna got along better with an assortment of older female relatives who encouraged her musical abilities. Her paternal grandmother gave her unintentional comic inspiration with a set of hilarious malapropisms that she produced while attempting to speak French. Anna herself attended a performance of a work called Facade by British composer William Walton when she was 12; fascinated by the nonsense texts of the piece, she began to write comic verses herself and set them to music.
Attending St. Felix School in Southwold, England, Russell aspired to a serious career as an opera singer. Her voice was damaged by a field hockey accident that fractured her nose and cheekbone and required reconstructive surgery, but she persisted and entered the Royal College of Music in London in 1934. The school's director, Sir Hugh Allen, greeted one of her vocal recitals with the discouraging suggestion that she consider auditioning at the Palladium, a London vaudeville house. However, the noted British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was her composition instructor, and she apparently fared better in her courses in musicology and composition than in her voice classes—she graduated in 1939 with a degree in those fields.
Russell nevertheless held onto her operatic dreams. She appeared in small roles with regional British opera companies, and she occasionally gave recitals of folk songs on the British Broadcasting Company (BBC) radio network. Russell was employed full-time by the BBC's education department, but according to Joseph So of the Web site La Scena Musicale, she considered that “a crashing bore.” Russell got another unintentional lesson in comedy during a performance of the opera Cavalleria Rusticana, in which she was supposed to be thrown to the floor by a male singer during one scene. Instead, she lost her balance and crashed into part of the set, to the accompaniment of gales of laughter from the audience. The effect of this episode on her operatic career remained undetermined, however, as Russell and her mother fled to Canada in 1939 as World War II broke out. They settled in her mother's hometown of Unionville, outside Toronto. In 1943 Russell became a Canadian citizen. She took American citizenship in 1955 but continued to perform in Canada frequently and lived in Unionville for much of her life.
Performed on CBC Radio
Russell's first job in Canada was at a hamburger stand, and she then moved on to the chorus line of a musical. By 1940 she had broken into the live music lineup of the powerful Toronto radio station CFRB, appearing on a program called “Round the Marble Arch” to sing old music hall favorites. Her skills as a comic singer developed in guest slots on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation programJolly Miller Time, and in the early 1940s she cohosted her own variety show, Syd and Anna, on station CJBC. She continued to keep one foot in the realm of classical music by working as a rehearsal pianist and understudy with Toronto's Rosselino Opera company, and gradually she began to develop comic routines centered on the classics. Her first appearance as a classical music comedienne came as a last-minute substitute at a music educators' convention.
From there she moved on to solo appearances, one of them sponsored by the Toronto Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire. That show caught the attention of Sir Ernest MacMillan, conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, who invited her to appear as part of an annual Christmas concert of humorous music. Russell's first Toronto Symphony appearance came in 1944, and she was well enough received that the invitation was repeated several times in subsequent years. Russell married a Canadian artist, Charles Goldhamer, but the marriage was short-lived; an earlier marriage in England, to John Denison, had also failed.
Russell's increasing renown in Canada stirred up interest in the United States, and soon she was performing routines like “For Singers with Great Artistry but No Voice” in opera-loving New York City. Mezzo soprano Jennie Tourel was incensed by the routine, thinking that it referred to her personally, and tried unsuccessfully to prevent New York's Carnegie Hall from booking Russell. Tourel's complaint notwithstanding, Russell's 1947 debut at Carnegie Hall marked the beginning of several decades of sustained popularity. Some critics such as the New York Post's Martin Bernheimer championed Russell, although her humor was lost on others. Among her biggest detractors was Claudia Cassidy of the Chicago Tribune, on whom Russell took revenge by coining the persistent nickname “Acidy Cassidy,” according to Joseph So, writing in Opera Canada.
The LP era, which allowed Russell's elaborate comic routines to be captured in recorded form, pushed her career to a new level. Recording for the Columbia label, Russell released the album Anna Russell Sings?, which perched atop classical record sales charts for 48 weeks. The album spawned a sequel, Anna Russell Sings! Again?, and in 1972 the two earlier albums were re-released as a double LP, The Anna Russell Album.
Satirized Wagner Opera Cycle
Russell's comedic targets included the bagpipes (“a very unsanitary instrument,” she pointed out) and, in a routine called “How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera,” the stylized plots of light opera's leading Victorian duo. Arranging all her material herself, she peppered her concerts with shorter routines parodying various types of song, including English folksongs (she composed one called “I Wish I Were a Dicky-Bird”), but the centerpiece of her show was a half-hour routine called “The Ring of the Nibelungs (An Analysis).” In that segment, Russell offered a compressed plot summary of composer Richard Wagner's 20-hour operatic Ring Cycle. Russell's version featured a convoluted story with a Norse mythological setting that took on an air of absurdity when stripped down to its essentials and presented in Russell's arch, deadpan British style. “I'm not making this up, you know,” Russell would respond, when the audience dissolved in laughter. “Russell always appeared as herself, her comedy rooted in her own slightly starchy upper-middle-class persona,” noted Paul Driscoll, writing in Opera News.
The line “I'm not making this up, you know,” became Russell's trademark and, in 1985, the title of her autobiography. In 1955 she had written another book, The Power of Being a Positive Stinker, whose title parodied a popular selfhelp book of the 1950s called The Power of Positive Thinking. Russell never totally renounced her goal of a career in serious opera, and she did take the stage in a few serious roles, including Engelbert Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel in 1953 and Gaetano Donizetti's The Daughter of the Regiment in 1977. Russell's routines were also adapted into one-woman Broadway shows (1955's Anna Russell's Little Show and 1960's All by Myself). Her popularity extended across five continents, as she gave concerts in North America, Britain, South Africa, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Australia; the African trip resulted in an LP, Anna Russell in Darkest Africa. Her 1957 concert at London, England's giant Royal Albert Hall was a sellout. Russell recorded three other LPs, Anna Russell's Guide to Concert Audiences, A Square Talk on Popular Music, and A Practical Banana Promotion. The Anna Russell Songbook, a printed compilation of her material, was published in 1958, and she later headed a company of her own, the B & R Music Publishing Company.
In 1965 Russell retired temporarily but returned to performing in 1973. In 1977 she appeared at Canada's Stratford Festival, and Canadian cities always figured prominently in her itinerary. She embarked on a final world tour in 1983, at the age of 72, and retired for good in 1986. For several years she lived in Unionville, where Anna Russell Way is named after her. Russell's discography began to include the compact disc era when the Sony label issued the album Encore in 1998. Some of her 1960s television appearances were released on DVD under the title Crown Princess of Musical Parody.
Russell was often assisted in her later years by an Australian woman, Deirdre Prussak, who described their relationship this way in an interview reproduced on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Web site: “I knew Anna for 51 years, from when I started being a fan. I then became her secretary years later and then she sort of adopted me … so I was upgraded all the way.” Russell moved to Bateman's Bay, Australia, in the early 2000s so that she could remain under Prussak's care, and she died there on October 18, 2006, about two months short of her 95th birthday.
Russell, Anna, I'm Not Making This Up, You Know, Continuum, 1985.
Daily Telegraph (London, England), October 21, 2006.
Guardian (London, England), October 24, 2006.
Opera Canada, Summer 2000.
Opera News, January 2007.
Times (London, England), October 26, 2006.
Washington Post, October 21, 2006.
“Anna Russell,” The Canadian Encyclopedia, http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/index.cfm?PgNm=TCE&Params=U1ARTU0003065 (January 7, 2008).
“Goodbye Anna Russell,” Australian Broadcasting Corporation, http://www.abc.net.au/southeastnsw/stories/s1768984.htm (January 7, 2008).
“Remembering Anna Russell (1911-2006),” La Scena Musicale, http://www.scena.org/columns/reviews/061023-JS-AnnaRussell.html (January 7, 2008).