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How to Write Your Own Gilbert & Sullivan Opera

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While I was driving yesterday, Anna Russell's "How to Write Your Own Gilbert & Sullivan Opera" came up on my iPhone music rotation. It is still lovely and entertaining, even after all these years. (It was recorded in 1953, and I've been listening to it intermittently since probably the early '90s.) I particularly like Russell's one-person madrigal singing and her excellent Gilbertian multisyllabic rhymes. And the line "Things would be so different if they were not as they are."

And it occurred to me that some of y'all may be unfamiliar with Ms. Russell's work. She started as an opera singer, but by the mid-'40s had started to find her true calling as a parodist and comedian. She did a bunch of stage shows, and made a few recordings.

A fair bit of her comedy revolves around high music culture of the period, and so may be less than fully accessible to people (say) my age and younger, especially those of us who aren't opera aficionados. But her two best-known pieces—the above-linked G&S piece and "The Ring of the Nibelungs (An Analysis)"—are brilliant and semi-timeless.

I say "semi" because both rely to some extent on the timelessness of other work. In particular, people unfamiliar with G&S will probably not enjoy the "How to Write Your Own" piece as much, given that it's primarily a fifteen-minute-long condensed and semi-modernized parody of H.M.S. Pinafore (and, to a lesser degree, various other G&S operettas), along with meta-commentary about the standardized template of a G&S show's plot and characters.

On the other hand, I think her twenty-minute "analysis"/summary of the Ring cycle may've been my first exposure to that story, and I've still never seen or heard the full Ring cycle itself; I imagine people familiar with the full version would enjoy Russell's discussion even more than I do.

Anyway. If you like musical parody (in the sense of parodies of songs and styles, not in the sense of new words to existing music), and/or if you like Gilbert & Sullivan or Wagner, then give Anna Russell a try.

Both of the abovelinked pieces can be found on her album The Anna Russell Album, which combines the music from her LPs Anna Russell Sings? and Anna Russell Sings! Again? In the iTunes Store, both pieces are "album only"; then again, the full double album costs only $9 (for nine pieces, but these two pieces are long, so the whole album adds up to about 75 minutes). And the other pieces on the album are also fun, albeit not the tour-de-forces of the two longer works.

Unfortunately, the 30-second preview clips don't come close to doing justice to those two pieces. But if you think from the descriptions and titles that they might be the kind of thing you would like, then you're probably right.

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