Anna Russell's "How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera" (1953)

CD Cover
Sony MDK 47252

Anna Russell (1911–2006) was a popular entertainer known for her operatic parodies. I was fortunate enough to see her give a concert in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in about 1980, near the end of her long career.

Russell's two most famous routines were "The Ring of the Nibelungs" — An Analysis and How to Write Your Own Gilbert and Sullivan Opera. Both were recorded. The music and lyrics for the latter were also published separately.

The premise behind "How to Write..." was the notion that, since all the G&S operas are written to a formula, you might as well just write your own. As an example, Russell concocts a story around the New York upper crust. The heroine, one Pneumonia Vanderfeller (soprano), loves the impecunious John Smith (tenor). Pneumonia's father, however, is in financial difficulties of his own, and seeks a union between Pneumonia and the enormously wealthy Claude Belly Bunion (patter baritone), who rose from humble beginnings to become a great tycoon. Just as Pneumonia's and Claude's wedding is to be celebrated, Dandylion (contralto) enters with the news that Claude and John Smith were exchanged at birth. Smith assumes Claude's position of wealth and is now free to marry Pneumonia with her father's blessing.

Anna Russell's send-up of the G&S operas is brilliant and hysterical. It never grows old, and I never tire of listening to it. The recording is taken from a live performance on April 23, 1953, so one gets the idea of the pleasure it brought to her audiences. The two-record set I have, The Anna Russell Album?, is a re-issue of discs originally issued separately as Anna Russell Sings? and Anna Russell Sings! Again? ("How to Write Your Own G&S" appeared on the latter.)

The liner notes of the original record describe the details of the recording, and Anna Russell's background, as follows:

Recorded in New York [City] at Town Hall, April 23, 1953, at [a] benefit concert for the Third Street Music School Setllement.... Anna Russell (full name, Anna Russell-Brown), born in London, England; studied at the Royal College of Music where she became an accomplished singer, a proficient pianist, and displayed further gifts in accompanying and arranging; appeared in a series of folk song programs on the BBC; joined a small opera company but always provoked peals of laughter from the audience even when [the] opera was tragic; was comedy star of a Canadian troop show during Second World War; made New York debut November 27. 1951, in Town Hall "recital" and has made many brilliantly successful repeat appearances since; was guest-star on many Fred Waring TV shows; writes own material.

Peter Parker had the privilege to be present when Bridget D'Oyly Carte heard this recording. (Peter's father, Stanley, was Bridget's personal secretary.) Here is Peter's account of that event:

In 1957, the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company were due to play at a cricket match at Harvel, in Kent, which was where Freddie Lloyd lived. He had arranged the match, and it was a Sunday. Bridget was invited to come down to Harvel, and my dad had arranged that she should come via Orpington, which was where we lived and on the direct route to Harvel. As I remember, she had lunch with us. I can't remember how she travelled, as she hardly ever drove her own car. (It could be that Bruce Worsley brought her). Nevertheless, she came that Sunday morning. I had suggested I play her the Anna Russell tape, but my dad was not sure if that would be wise. In the event I did play the tape for her, and I don't think I had ever seen her so uninhibited and doubled up with laughter. She thought it was a scream. I can remember her making a comment to the effect that she hoped it would not damage the real thing.

There is also a video, "The (First) Anna Russell Farewell Special," which was recorded in 1985 at the Baltimore Museum of Art and shown on public television. Unfortunately, by then Ms. Russell was far past her prime and gives a considerably muddier reading of the sketch than on the record.

Note: Although not relevant in a G&S context, Anna Russell recorded four other LP albums:

  • Anna Russell's Guide to Concert Audiences
  • Anna Russell in Darkest Africa
  • A Square Talk on Popular Music
  • A Practical Banana Promotion

There was also a live album, Anna Russell Live at the Sydney Opera House.

Her videos include: the "farewell concert" listed below; "Anna Russell — The Clown Princess of Comedy" (VAI 69402), which is a heap of CBS archival footage; and also, apparently, a movie of Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel, in English, with Anna Russell as the Witch, the soundtrack of which was released on LP. The movie itself is/was supposedly available on home video, although I've never encountered it.

Besides G&S and Wagner's Ring, her operatic parodies included The Magic Flute, Nabucco, and Tannhäuser. Gregory Stouffer brought to my attention several parodies of operas never written, such as: Verdi's Hamletto (or Prosciutino); the aria from Puccini's Amnesia; the modern opera The Psychiatrist ("Hey ho, bats in the belfry, jolly old Sigmund Freud!"); the aria "Canto Dolcemente Pi-Po" from the opera La Cantatrice Squellante by Michelangelo Occhipinti; as well as the aria "Ah, Lover!" from the operetta The Prince of Philadelphia.

Issue History
1953 Columbia Masterworks Mono LP ML4594/ML4733

Album titled Anna Russell Sings! Again? also includes "'The Ring of the Nibelung' — An Analysis" and "Introduction to the Concert (By Women's Club President)"

On the cover, and heading the linear notes on the back cover, she is listed as "Anna Russell, International Concert Comedienne, accompanying herself at the piano, and with John Coveart, Piano." (Cover art accompanies the G&S piece. Anna Russell herself accompanies the Ring spoof.)

1953? Philips Mono LP BBL7033/B07028L/B07031L  
1972 Columbia Masterworks Mono LP MG 31199

Two-record set called The Anna Russell Album? Includes all the contents of Anna Russell Sings! Again? and an earlier record called Anna Russell Sings?

198? Sony Music Entertainment Inc Cassette [need number]

Apparently has the same contents as The Anna Russell Album? I am told that one of the numbers from "How to Write Your Own Gilbert & Sullivan" is cut out, but I don't know which one. The copyright on the cassette is 1972, but given the Sony corporate name, it must have come out sometime in the 1980s or '90s. It could also be a repackaging of a cassette that came out earlier.

1985 VAI Video VHS NTSC VAI 69019

Video titled The (First) Anna Russell Farewell Special, taped at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1985. Also known by the titles Anna Russell, the (First) Farewell Concert and The (First) Farewell Concert, Anna Russell.

1991 Sony Masterworks CD MDK 47252

CD titled The Anna Russell Album?

Note: There have been two more Anna Russell CDs, which I list herre for completeness, although there is no G&S connection: Anna Russell, Encore(?) (Sony Classical #SFK 60316) and Anna Russell Again? (Sony Classical #SFK60317).