Anna Russell, Heroine of Opera Spoof, Dies Comedienne Anna Russell died last week at the age of 94. Formally trained in opera and composition, she realized she didn't have the voice to make a career of opera. So instead, she made fun of it. Her stage shows were huge draws in the '60s and '70s.
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Anna Russell, Heroine of Opera Spoof, Dies

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Anna Russell, Heroine of Opera Spoof, Dies

Anna Russell, Heroine of Opera Spoof, Dies

Anna Russell, Heroine of Opera Spoof, Dies

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Comedienne Anna Russell died last week at the age of 94. Formally trained in opera and composition, she realized she didn't have the voice to make a career of opera. So instead, she made fun of it. Her stage shows were huge draws in the '60s and '70s.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

Anna Russell, who made a career of lampooning the world of opera and classical music, died last Wednesday at the age of 94. Classically trained by some fine teachers, including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ms. Russell soon realized she did not have the natural talent to make a career in opera, but she did have a well-honed comedic sense and was soon using it to make exquisite fun of (unintelligible) Gilbert and Sullivan, Richard Wagner and all manner of pompous and vain performers. New York Times critic Carol C. Schoenberg(ph) once wrote, Her parodies are so close to the truth that sometimes they have forever ruined the real thing for some listeners. We dug through our archives and found an interview with Anna Russell from 1976. She was interviewed by John Rosack(ph), who asked about her early days.

Ms. ANNA RUSSELL (Comedian): I was put on the piano at the age about five, and I had to learn sort of, you know, harmony and counterpoint, and I was always being exposed to great music, and then when I went through all kinds of music, I started with Dr. Vaughan Williams' composition. I'm quite good at it, except I always write other people's music. I'm terribly good at writing other people's music. It's practically indistinguishable. In fact, the fact that father used to play a Gilbert and Sullivan opera every time somebody came to dinner, I can write Gilbert and Sullivan. In fact, the one song on my record, it isn't Gilbert and Sullivan at all, but everybody thinks it is.

JOHN ROSACK: It's you, isn't it?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes.

(Soundbite of song)

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) I only had a very rudimentary education, my professors knew entirely to my great determination. Once I nearly went to prison for a shady operation, but I undermined the jury and they changed their tune.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) I started as a gangster with a power so despotic the police became dogmatic and the going too chaotic that I made a lot of money on a very nice narcotic. I'm a fabulous phenomenon, the great tycoon.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) (Unintelligible) the great tycoon.

ROSACK: Now, with all this grand opera training and all this great tradition and your composition studies, alas, what happened?

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, alas, I didn't have the voice. 'Cause really all you need to be an opera singer is a great voice. And once, when I was being - when I went into comedy first of all, it was with a little bit of resentment and bitchery, and as I remarked, which I think is true, you're better off with resonance where your brains ought to be. And the rest can be fed into you, unless you're retarded. And I've known a lot of quite successful singers who are quite retarded. Because I knew all the rest of it, but I hadn't got the actual thing that was necessary.

ROSACK: But you do have, I think, a great humor and a great insight into what essentially are absurd stories.

Ms. RUSSELL: Well, a lot of it is absurd, if you really look at it from the outside.

ROSACK: But the singing, of course, makes it so grand and worthwhile nonetheless, don't you agree?

Ms. RUSSELL: Yes. I would love to be able to do it. Oh, in my next incarnation I hope I've got a lovely voice and no brain.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. RUSSELL: It's interested to note that (unintelligible) never seem to manage to learn the words of the lead, but carry them on the platform written in a little book.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of music)

Ms. RUSSELL: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

HANSEN: Comedienne Anna Russell. She died last Wednesday at the age of 94. This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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