Anna Russell

Active - 20th Century  |   Born - Dec 12, 1911 in London, England  |   Died - Oct 18, 2006 in New South Wales, Australia  |   Genres - Comedy, Music [nf], Children's/Family

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During her 94 years, vocalist Anna Russell quickly and justifiably earned the unofficial title of "World's Greatest Musical Satrist," for such feats as a riff on Richard Wagner's Die Nibelungen cycle and a goofy send-up of Gilbert & Sullivan's major operettas.

Born Anna Claudia Russell-Brown on December 27, 1911, in either London, Ontario, Canada or Maida Vale, London, England (sources disagree entirely on this point), Russell continued to eke out the path first carved by her aunts, several of whom were opera singers themselves. She enrolled in Kensington's Royal College of Music for four years. Early indications of the career that lay ahead for Russell were not promising; teacher Ralph Vaughan Williams harped on her tin voice, and though she toured with small British opera companies after graduation, her prospects fell apart during a performance of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana when she inadvertently tripped, brought the set crashing down, and had the orchestral musicians doubled over, roaring with laughter. She was promptly sacked.

A subsequent folk-singing gig on BBC radio began soberly but provided further hints of Russell's future by breaking listeners up into hysterics, even when Russell wasn't consciously attempting humor. She then moved to Canada to live with extended family as World War II unfolded, and landed a succession of Canadian radio spots, where she deliberately and consciously attempted operatic parodies and became a succès d'estime across North America; all but the most snobbish operatic purists came to admire her as a satirist, and she spent decades touring to a large and loyal following across several continents. Her routines included reinventions of Cole Porter's "Night and Day" (as if rewritten by Schubert and Handel) and a comic dissection of Siegfried's familial dynamics. She occasionally performed non-parodic opera roles, such as The Witch in the 1955 NYCO production of Hansel and Gretel and The Duchess of Crackenthorp in the COC's 1977 production of Daughter of the Regiment.

Russell officially retired from the stage in 1986. She died 20 years later, on October 18, 2006, in Bateman's Bay, New South Wales, Australia -- two months shy of her 95th birthday.

Cinematically, Russell joined the cast of George Pollock's nutty 1962 comedy Kill or Cure, opposite screen giants Terry-Thomas, Lionel Jeffries, and Dennis Price, about the foul play that transpires at a health club. A number of Russell's stage performances have also been recorded for posterity and are available on home video, such as the aforementioned Hansel and Gretel and Anna Russell: The (First) Farewell Concert (1984). The 47-minute CBC compilation Anna Russell: Crown Princess of Musical Parody (1996) juxtaposes a number of the singer's finest moments on-stage.

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