Dame Nellie Melba
Dame Nellie Melba was Australia's first opera singer of note, and the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician. She was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May, 1861 in the suburb of Richmond in Melbourne in the State of Victoria. She adopted the stage name Melba as a contraction of her home town.
Her parents David and Isabella Mitchell were of Scottish descent and both were musical. Though first taught by her aunts, she then attended the prestigious Presbyterian Ladies' College. Although her father encouraged her musical career in one sense and encouraged her to take music lessons, he was totally against a professional career as a musician for her because of her sex. When she was 19 she lost her mother and a sister. The family moved to Mackay in Queensland where her father took over a sugar mill.
In 1882 she met a baronet's son, Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong and they were married in the December. They had one son named George. Melba felt musically and socially stifled. Her husband did not support her ambitions, constant rain kept her indoors and the climate wreaked havoc with the piano. In 1884, she left the family home for Melbourne.
Melba, after establishing herself on the Australian concert circuit, travelled to London in 1886 but no professional work came of her visit. She then went to Paris. Mathilde Marchesi was the foremost teacher of the time and Melba had lessons from her.
Her first starring role was as Gilda at the Theatre de La Monnaie in Brussels in 1887. Following Marchesi's advice, Melba adopted her stage name at this time. Charles had followed Melba to Europe and joined the British Army paying occasional visits to his wife and child. He and Melba had a fiery argument at the opera house in Brussels.
This same year, 1887, Melba made her debut at Covent Garden but received little promise of work for the following season. She called on the assistance of her friend Lady de Grey. Lady de Grey was a prominent member of the London aristocracy. From the 1880s to 1914, she was a significant patron of the Royal Opera House. She was influential in having Augustus Harris made manager of the Royal Italian Opera (later Royal Opera House), Covent Garden in 1888. Her patronage allowed her to influence the commissioning of new operas and the engagement of singers. She was friendly with many singers of the day.
Although Melba's debut at Covent Garden in 1887 did not augur particularly well, with Lady de Grey's persuasion she returned a year later to great acclaim. Thanks to the intervention of this influential patroness of the arts, Melba played the lead in Donizetti's Lucia in 1888 and was an overnight success. This led to Melba having a huge influence over the theatre's management for the next forty years.
In 1890, Melba met Philippe, Duke of Orleans. They were seen together in London, exciting some gossip but a full-scale scandal erupted when Philippe followed her across Europe. They were seen together in Paris, Brussels, Vienna and St Petersburg where she sang for the Tsar. At the Vienna Opera they were seen sharing a box and the news was soon all over the country. Armstrong was furious and immediately filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery, citing the Duke as co-respondent. He was eventually persuaded to drop the case. The Duke left on an extended African safari and the relationship was never resumed. Armstrong took George to the United States and he and Melba were divorced in Texas in 1900.
Melba was now appearing in Australia, Europe, England and the United States. Her prima donna status saw her perform regularly for royalty and the aristocracy. Her recordings for HMV had their own distinctive mauve label and were always at least a shilling more to buy than any other performers. Her concerts drew audiences swathed in jewels and Melba's costumes were equally elaborate.
She visited New Zealand in 1903 after first touring Australia where she performed in small country halls (but only if they were wooden). Concerts were sold out and people listened through open windows or from under the floorboards where halls were built up off the ground. Some years later she would advise Clara Butt, a contralto planning a similar tour, to 'Sing 'em muck – it's all they understand'.
Soon after the Italian premiere of Pagliacci, she sang Nedda in London in 1892 and in New York in 1893. Although scheduled to go on tour in the United States in 1893, this trip was delayed for a week when the Swedish king, King Oscar II, requested a Royal command performance. In New York, Melba was the first to sing Mimi in Puccini's La boheme.
During World War I (1914-1918) she did much charity work and was rewarded for her efforts with the appointment of Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1918. In 1927, she was made Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. Among her other achievements, she was the first Australian to appear on the cover of Time magazine.
Melba was renowned for her demanding, temperamental persona. She was a tyrant in the operatic world, thwarting any opportunities which might have enhanced the career and reputation of others. She was accused of being unable to 'act' or impersonate a role but her sublime voice made up for such shortcomings.
She did assist some young singers however. Stella Power, Gertrude Johnson, Toti Dal Monte, Florence Austral, Louise Homer, John Brownlee and Browning Mummery were some of her protégés. Puccini she assisted by bullying the Covent Garden management into producing more of his operas. Greater public prominence resulted from her enthusiasm. Melba was Patroness of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 1921 to 1932.
Her autobiography 'Melodies and Memories' appeared in 1925.
Her official 'farewell' to Covent Garden in 1926 was in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary.
In 1927, she sang God Save the King at the official opening of Parliament House in Canberra.
Melba had a number of 'farewell' tours between the mid 1920s and her final concert in Geelong in November 1928. Australians now sometimes speak of 'more farewells than Nellie Melba'.
She died of septicaemia on 23 February 1931 at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. She was given a state funeral from Scots' Church, Melbourne. Her death was front-page news in Europe, United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia.
Melba had a pure lyric soprano voice with accurate intonation, purity of tone, smooth legato and effortless coloraturas. Her voice was described as silvery and disembodied.
Australia's pride in Dame Nellie Melba has seen her image appear on the $100 note. A suburb in Canberra is named in her honour and the Melbourne Conservatorium was renamed the Melba Memorial Conservatorium of Music in 1956.
Melba is also commemorated in the culinary world. The French chef, Auguste Escoffier, created four dishes which feature her name: Peach Melba, Melba sauce, Melba toast and Melba Garniture.
Dame Melba was surely one of Australia's great women.