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The Queen Of Musical Parody

January 14, 2009

The first I heard of Anna Russell, an Anglo-Canadian stage comedienne who -- somewhat improbably by today's standards -- became famous in the mid-20th century for parodying the world of classical music, was during a singing lesson a few weeks ago. I was trying to think of a good idea for a comic song to perform at an upcoming recital, and Russell's name came up in conversation. My normally laid-back singing teacher started doing an impression of her, straightening her back, pulling in her chin and rambling on about Wagner and bagpipes in a "freightfully pawsh" British accent. I didn't really have the foggiest idea what she was on about, but I was intrigued enough by her brief insights into Russell to check out clips of the comedienne on YouTube, borrow her autobiography entitled I'm Not Making This Up You Know from my local library and rent a compendium of her interviews and stage performances on DVD from Netflix.

Russell, who was born in London into an upper class military family in 1911 and died in Australia in 2006, turns out to be an intriguing character and a hilariously self-deprecating autobiographer. Today, it's hard to imagine a matronly-looking, third rate vocalist filling Carnegie Hall and The Royal Albert Hall to the gills with fake lectures about The Ring Cycle, Gilbert and Sullivan and the French Horn interspersed with doggerel-like ditties. But Russell apparently managed it with ease. During a career that spanned several decades and many countries, the performer turned her failed hopes of becoming an opera star into box office gold.

I'm Not Making This Up is probably the most entertaining biography I've read since delving into Alexander Walker's book about Peter Sellers early last year. Russell tells brilliantly madcap anecdotes about everything from driving Ralph Vaughn Williams and other august professors at the Royal College of Music mad with her incompetence, to receiving Leopold Stokowski in Houston, Texas, with cream on her face and curlers in her hair. She's a fount of lore about 20th century music and world travel and tells all of her stories with a refreshing lack of interest in making herself look good.

One thing that strikes me as curious about the book is how little space the author devotes to talking about her performances. We gets reams about the lead-up and the aftermath, including, often, a synopsis of the reviews she received in the press. But she lightly skips over what it is she actually does on stage. This is odd. At first, I imagined this omission to be entirely due to the fact that it's quite hard to describe in words what it is that Russell does (or rather, did) up there. "A standup routine about classical music involving fake lectures, live demonstrations sometimes on invisible instruments and parodies of well-known genres" doesn't really come close to nailing Russell's art. No wonder she had trouble selling her act to promoters in the early part of her career -- they had to see her live on stage to begin to understand her. And even then, no one quite knew what box to put her in.

But now that I've actually sat through a number of her acts in their entirety on DVD, I'm beginning to think that it's just as well that Russell doesn't bother to explain much about her routines in her book. They're just not very funny. I guess tastes have changed in the half century or so since she was at her professional peak. For I simply couldn't even crack a smile at her warbling pastiches of German lieder and weak jokes about French horns making fashionable hats. Perhaps one had to see her live to feel the vibe. Still, I think she's a brilliantly funny writer and I suppose I did laugh a couple of times during her lecture on how to play the bagpipes.

Russell is hardly a household name today. But she performed an important service to western culture during her long career. For in turning the Serious Business of Classical Music into something worth poking fun at, she rendered it gloriously unstuffy and managed to touch vast numbers of people who professed not to be fans of the genre. In short, she was a breath of fresh air to the stolid world of divas and maestros. These days, only Kiki and Herb come close, and their schtick is decidedly different.

Since Russell left the stage, classical music has slipped even further from the public imagination. If only the 20th century's Queen of Musical Parody had an heir to bring the genre alive in the same irreverent way for 21st century audiences.

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