04 December 2006

Anna Russell

My first and favorite Valkyrie

The passing of Anna Russell in October, 2006, completely escaped my attention; I learned of it only weeks later. The news shouldn’t have come as a surprise — she was ninety-four — but when I’d corresponded with her only a few years ago, she was busy with books and other projects, and it was clear from a brief conversation with her daughter that, really, Mother was a handful.

I grew up listening to her albums, even before I'd started going to the opera or had much idea what she was talking about. She was just funny. Only after I started attending operas and concerts on a regular basis, and meeting professional singers, did I realize that Miss Russell was not making this up, you know. Every single thing she said turned out to be gospel truth.

By now, I’ve heard dozens of “singers who can’t count,” and who consider themselves endowed with “such magnificent voices that they cannot be bothered with correct tempi.” In contemporary operas, I’ve heard singers whose tone-deafness I suspected. In Emma Kirkby, I first encountered “the pure-white, or nymphs-and-shepherds style” of English soprano. A few bel canto specialists have confirmed Miss Russell’s assertion that “the only people who really enjoy coloratura singing are other coloratura sopranos.” German Lieder are frequently sung, just as Miss Russell promised, by people “with one or two rather loud notes at either end of the scale, and nothing much in between”; these folks do on occasion seem to be trying to make a noise loud enough “to kill a canary.”

It’s because of Miss Russell that I can never attend a Wagner opera without fighting back laughter. Miss Russell’s “Introduction to the Ring Cycle” is likely her most celebrated and enduring work, in which she’d sing all the roles while explaining the plot. That plot is of course ludicrous, although it’s considered unforgivable ever to say so. Thus the “Introduction” was my ruin. I had memorized the entire monologue before I ever saw the Ring, and true to Miss Russell’s word, those four operas are the funniest ever written. By happy chance, I had tickets in standing room for my first Ring, so that I could make a quick break for the exit if any offended purists came at me.

I met her once, in Providence, following one of her farewell performances. Though the “Introduction” was no longer part of her repertory — “very competitive singing” being by that time beyond her reach — she did perform another masterpiece, “How to Write Your Own Gilbert & Sullivan Operetta.” In it, she identifies the Savoyard formula and applies it to a piece of her own invention, in which she again sings all the roles, this time wearing funny hats. Many of her lyrics are as good as Gilbert’s (“Things would be so different / If they were not as they are!” and “It’s very, very funny / To have lots and lots of money / And be horrible to those with none,” for example), and through years of listening, I’d memorized all of them, too.

Yet nothing could prepare me for the pleasure of seeing her in performance: her timing, her mugging, her infectious giddy fun in the stateliest music. It was like discovering that a character out of a favorite storybook was a real person, and afterward, I wanted to hug her. I settled for meeting her. She received me in her dressing room, autographed a poster for me (where did that thing wind up, anyway?), and introduced me to several friends who'd come to visit her. Then she whisked me out the door. If I didn't have the poster as proof, I'd think I'd dreamed it all. Come to mention it, now that I can’t find the poster, maybe I did dream it.

About three years ago, I had the great good fortune to interview her — by letter — for an article in Opera News, and during our correspondence I did tell her that I think of her every time I go to the concert hall. Of all the work I did for the magazine during three years there, I’m proudest of that interview, though it was merely a quick little paragraph in a survey of singers. Sadly, I was out of the office one morning when Miss Russell telephoned me: she'd grown quite deaf, and our receptionist's Puerto Rican accent is nearly incomprehensible even to other Spanish-speakers. I'm told it was an animated exchange.

Her obituary in the Times noted that it’s unlikely that a classical-music comedienne could enjoy such a successful career today, when music education is largely extinct. Even the late Victor Borge — her only rival — used to reach out to the unenlightened by sprinkling his act with non-musical jokes (“Audible Punctuation,” most notably) and slapstick, which Miss Russell used but sparingly. When she sang, she could depend upon a significant proportion of her audience knowing at least a little about the targets of her satire. And it’s true, her material gets funnier the more familiar one is with her subject.

Yet for me, Anna Russell’s comedy was part of my musical education — the foundation on which I built my later studies of “real” music and developed much of my taste and my appreciation for what the voice can (and can’t) do. Without conventional music education, I might not have gone much farther, but she gave me a helluva good start.

I remain grateful for every feisty minute she shared with me, and find myself singing, "Come back, and make me misera-bullllllllll again."