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Poking Fun at Opera – Anna Russell, Beverly Sills & Danny Kaye, Victor Borge, and . . . Al Jolson

Opera as an institution lacks a sense of humor. Soprano Eileen Farrell once had a sign in her office at Indiana State University (where she taught voice) that read “Stamp Out Opera.” It was not appreciated. The great Wagnerian tenor Leo Slezak stood watching the Swan Boat in Lohengrin sail right past him without stopping. Without missing a beat he turned to the audience and asked, “What time is the next swan?” But those are rare exceptions to the rule. The movies don’t handle opera much better. The Marx Brothers and Danny Kaye did the best work, but even there the humor mainly involved someone stumbling around, knocking people down, and making a disastrous mess of the scenery.

Anna Russell was an English soprano of little note who became a marvelously funny comedienne by specialized in satirizing the foibles of the musical world. Her attack on Wagner’s “Ring of the Nibelung” is hilarious, but much too long for this occasion so how about just the first part of it.

Beverly Sills & Danny Kaye
Beverly Sills was one of those rare Divas who could see the human side of an equation and laugh at herself. Her she is with Danny Kaye on his TV show.

The Danish comedian and pianist (in that order) Victor Borge regularly satirized everything that moved or didn’t, but one of his funnier routines involved a Mozart opera called – The Mozart Opera.

Al Jolson began his career as a comic singer. As such he regularly satirized classical music and opera, several examples of which he recorded. In 1930 Irving Berlin had an idea for a movie musical about life in a traveling minstrel show (with, of course, Irving Berlin songs.) It was a lousy movie but had some great musical numbers (a few bad ones, too.) In this one, Jolson recreates a minstrel show parody number as it might have been perforfed by Dockstader’s Minstrels when he was with the show (1908 – 1910.) The song is “Yes We Have No Bananas, which was written in 1922.

Jolson sang in blackface from the age of 15 until near the end of his career. It was an accepted custom in his time. Jolson himself was certainly no racist (see the biography on these pages for more on that) and I doubt that it would have occurred to him that someone might find it offensive. But consider this a warning.

Your comments or questions are welcome.