Nellie Melba: Wikis


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Portrait of Dame Nellie Melba GBE by Henry Walter Barnett

Dame Nellie Melba GBE (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931), born Helen Porter Mitchell, was an Australian opera soprano. She became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian Era and the early 20th century due to the purity of her lyrical voice and the brilliance of her technique. Melba was the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician. She and May Whitty were the first stage performers to be granted damehoods of the Order of the British Empire.



Melba was born at Doonside in Richmond, Victoria to a musical family, attending the prestigious Presbyterian Ladies' College, where her musical talent emerged. Her birth certificate lists her parents, David and Isabella Mitchell, as former residents of Forfarshire, Scotland. This ties in with local legend which states that, prior to moving to Australia, her parents lived in what is now a ruined cottage in the valley below the farm of "Glackburn" in Glen Prosen, Angus. (The County of Angus was formerly known as Forfarshire.) Melba lost her mother early. She moved with her father David Mitchell to Queensland in 1880.[citation needed]


She married Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong, the son of a baronet, who managed a property near Mackay, Queensland. They had one son named George. Although on paper the marriage lasted almost twenty years, in practice it was over within two. Her husband "did all he could to halt her progress" [1]. She escaped back to Melbourne to plan for the trip to Europe. Her mother-in-law, keen not to lose a grandson, helped Melba with introductions during her early career.

At the start of her fame, a scandal occurred after the news of her affair with Philippe, Duke of Orleans, the heir of the Bourbon pretender to the French throne, became public. She had travelled across Europe to St Petersburg to sing for the Tsar, with the Duke following close behind, but they were seen together in a box at the opera in Vienna. The affair led to her husband filing divorce proceedings against her. Philippe "was probably the great love of her life" but in addition to him, she had "a series of lovers". [2]


Melba Gramaphone ad.jpg

Débuts at Brussels, London and Paris

Having established herself on the concert circuit in Melbourne,[3] In 1886 she travelled to London but was offered nothing by either Sir Arthur Sullivan, and Carl Rosa.[4] She then went to Paris to study with the foremost teacher Mathilde Marchesi, and had her first starring role (as Gilda) at the Théâtre de La Monnaie, Brussels on 12 October 1887.[5]

In that year (1887) Melba had her Covent Garden début, but made so little impression that they only offered her the role of Oscar for the next season there. Melba however persuaded the influential patroness Lady de Grey to adopt her cause, and returned instead as Donizetti's Lucia on 1 June 1888.[6] This was an immense success, and established her unshakeable influence over the theatre's management over the next four decades.[7]

Her opening success in Paris was as Ophélie in Hamlet by Ambroise Thomas,[5], outshining most of her predecessors[citation needed] in this role created in the 1860s by Christina Nilsson. Back in London she appeared opposite Jean de Reszke in Romeo et Juliette (June 1889), and she was then in Paris as Marguerite, Juliette, Ophélie, Lucia and Gilda.[5]


Thus began a professional career in Australia, England, Europe and the United States that saw her as the prima donna at Covent Garden through to the 1920s. She was feted by royalty and her recordings for HMV always cost at least one shilling more than any other singer's, having their own distinctive mauve label as well. (She also recorded extensively for Victor when in the United States.) Before the War, Melba nights were social events and the audience blazed with jewels. Melba herself wore couture costumes by Worth of Paris and her own jewels. The Performing Arts Collection in Melbourne holds a cloak made for Melba to wear in Lohengrin, which she had to rescue from the Russian border guards, despite the fact that she was travelling for a command performance to the Tsar. The Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, has a less glamorous velvet dress worn in Faust. The Metropolitan Opera Collection has her pink enamel and diamond Faberge parasol handle, and the State Library of New South Wales holds a gold, diamond and jade Cartier pinbox presented to her when she was made Dame in 1918. Melba also sang in New York at the Met and Chicago, and famously, at Oscar Hammerstein's opera house, drawing the Met audiences to his new theatre, even though Enrico Caruso was singing at the Met. She rescued the house financially.[citation needed]

It was also Marchesi who persuaded her to adopt a suitable stage name. "Melba" was chosen as a contraction of the name of her native city.[8] Melba visited New Zealand in February 1903 after her tour of Australia. She arrived in Invercargill from Hobart and was welcomed by the Prime Minister Sir Joseph Ward and Lady Ward.[9] After giving one concert in Dunedin she travelled to Christchurch[10] and gave a concert in Wellington [11]

In order to increase her fees she took the highly entrepreneurial step of ostentatiously moving to a hotel in Monte Carlo in the hope that the engaged prima donna would fall ill and that she would be asked to substitute, at a high fee.[12] Her total savings at that time were just £400 and she was at one point "feeling desperate". This proved successful, and in 1904 she sang the title role in the world premiere of Camille Saint-Saëns's Hélène at the Opéra de Monte-Carlo. Despite her fame, and her studies with the great composers of the day such as Charles Gounod, the only other role created by her was Elaine by Herman Bemberg (Giacomo Puccini wrote the role of Cio Cio San with Melba in mind, but she did not create it). She was, however, the first to sing the role of Nedda in Pagliacci in London in 1892 (soon after its Italian premiere), and in New York in 1893. In this year her first tour of the United States had to be postponed for a week as King Oscar II of Sweden had requested an unscheduled Royal command performance before she left. King Oscar had been so excited by her previous performance that he had stood twice, forcing the audience to stand also in the middle of the opera. Melba was also the first to sing Mimi in Puccini's La bohème in New York.[citation needed]


In 1909, she bought property at Coldstream, a small town 50 km east of Melbourne and around 1912 had Coombe Cottage built. The house is located at the current juncture of Maroondah Highway and Melba Highway (named in her honour). Coombe Cottage is now the residence of Melba's granddaughter, Pamela, Lady Vestey (the mother of the 3rd Lord Vestey). Melba also set up a music school in Richmond, which she later merged into the Melbourne Conservatorium.


She was appointed Dame Commander of the British Empire in 1918 for her charity work during World War I, and was elevated to Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire in 1927. She and Dame May Whitty were the first entertainers to be awarded the honour of Dame Commander of the British Empire.

Melba was the first Australian to appear on the cover of Time magazine, in April 1927.[13] She was selected to sing the then national anthem, God Save the King, at the official opening of the Parliament House in Canberra, on 9 May 1927, the day on which Canberra became Australia's capital city.

Legends and anecdotes

Melba as Marguerite

Melba was known for her demanding, temperamental diva persona. John McCormack, on the night of his London debut, attempted to take a bow with her on stage, but she pushed him back forcefully, saying "In this house, no one takes a bow with Melba." She jealously guarded her position as prima donna. In Emma Eames' memoirs, Melba is described as a wicked force who frustrated opportunity after opportunity for Eames. Titta Ruffo, Rosa Ponselle, McCormack, Luisa Tetrazzini, Frances Alda, and others also described their unpleasant experiences with Melba.[citation needed] An acerbic Eames later in life averred that Melba had a beautiful voice, but of her portrayal of Marguerite in Gounod's Faust (illustration, left), Eames quipped that "She would have hung the jewels off her nose if she could!"[citation needed]

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Melba described her younger compatriot, the dramatic soprano Florence Austral, as having, "One of the wonder voices of the World". She was from a previous generation to Caruso and his colleagues above. She found Caruso coarse and uncultivated, as shown by his sense of humour in the sausage incident.[citation needed]

She undertook strenuous tours of small Australian country towns where she would often perform only in a wooden hall, like the Prince of Wales Opera House in Gulgong. The concerts were sold out and the windows were left open, partly because of the heat and partly because Melba wanted Australians to hear her. Many even listened from underneath the floor, the halls being built up off the ground and the wooden structure providing excellent acoustics. Of course the famous tale of her advising Dame Clara Butt to "sing 'em muck", referring to Butt's forthcoming tour of Australia, is another side of the legend. There is yet another explanation of this famous advice, however, and it is that in the theatrical parlance of the day, "muck" actually meant "popular", as in a selection of favourite arias. The pejorative meaning now attributed to Melba's words was probably not intended.[citation needed]

Patronage of others

Despite the antipathy and dislike Melba inspired in many of her own peers, she did help the careers of younger singers. She taught for many years at the Conservatorium in Melbourne and looked for a "new Melba". Melba passed her own personal cadenzas onto a young Gertrude Johnson, a valuable professional asset. In 1924, Melba brought the new star Toti Dal Monte, fresh from triumphs in Milan and Paris but still unheard in England or the United States, to Australia as a principal of the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company. The Australian baritone John Brownlee was helped by her, and it was Brownlee who accompanied Melba on her last commercial recordings in 1926.[citation needed]

The "Dite alla giovane" from Traviata is especially beautiful with its unique plunge on "raggio". The Australian tenor Browning Mummery sang with Melba in her Covent Garden farewells also. Melba also "discovered" a lyric soprano named Stella Power whom she thought sounded a lot like herself. In early 1918, Power participated in a "Melba Concert" with Nellie Melba at the Isis Theatre where she was well received. Power was dubbed "the little Melba", but Power lacked Melba's ambition, soon married and had a child, and retired.

Melba served as Patroness (President) of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra from 1921–1932.

Radio performances

In June 1920 she appeared on a pioneering radio broadcast from Guglielmo Marconi's factory in Chelmsford, England. People listening on the radio barely heard a few scratches of the trill and two arias she sang. It was a historic moment but there were few radio receivers for people to hear her, so she never made another studio radio broadcast not realising the potential of the new medium. The microphone was not even adapted to recording until 1924 and Melba carefully sang a select repertoire for it. There were other live broadcasts including a performance broadcast by wireless telephone to England and several European countries in July 1920, and her farewell from Covent Garden was widely broadcast.[citation needed]

In 1927, Melba and others took part in the first wireless programme broadcast throughout the British Empire, by radio station 2FC, Sydney, on Monday 5 September 1927. The programme was relayed by the BBC London on Sunday 4 September.[14]


Melba made numerous gramophone (phonograph) records of her voice in England and America between 1904 (when she was already aged in her 40s) and 1926 for the Gramophone & Typewriter Company, its successor HMV and the Victor Recording Company. Most of these recordings, consisting of operatic arias, duets and ensemble pieces and songs, have been re-released on CD for contemporary audiences.

The poor audio fidelity of the Melba recordings reflects the limitations of the early days of commercial sound recording. Despite this, they still reveal Melba to have had an almost seamlessly pure lyric soprano voice with effortless coloratura, a smooth legato and accurate intonation. Melba had perfect pitch and critic Michael Aspinall says of her on the complete London recordings issued on LP, that there are only two rare lapses from pitch in the entire set. Even so they are hard to hear. The recordings give an idea of the voice which people described as silvery and disembodied, with the notes forming in the theatre as if by magic and floating up through the theatre like a floating star. Like Adelina Patti, and unlike the more vibrant-voiced Luisa Tetrazzini, Melba's exceptional purity of tone was probably one of the major reasons why British audiences, with their strong choral and sacred music traditions, idolised her.[15]

Melba's official "farewell" to Covent Garden on 8 June 1926, in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary, was recorded by HMV, as well as broadcast. The programme included Act 2 of Romeo et Juliette (not recorded because Charles Hackett was not under contract to HMV), followed by the opening of Act 4 of Otello (Desdemona's willow song and Ave Maria) and Acts 3 and 4 of La bohème (with Aurora Rettore, Browning Mummery, John Brownlee and others). The conductor was Vincenzo Bellezza. At the conclusion Lord Stanley of Alderley made a formal address and Melba gave her (tearful) farewell speech. In a pioneering venture, eleven sides (78rpm) were recorded via a landline to Gloucester House (London), though in the event only three of these were published. The full series (including both speeches) was included in a 1976 HMV reissue. Despite the technical inadequacy of these early electric 'live' recordings, they bear witness to the lovely and unimpaired quality of her voice, even if her breath support was not what it had formerly been.[16]


She then left for Europe and later developed a fever in Egypt which she never quite shook off. She is also well remembered in Australia for her seemingly endless series of "farewell" tours between her last stage performances in the mid 1920s and her final, last concerts in Australia in Sydney on 7 August 1928, Melbourne on 27 September 1928 and Geelong in November 1928. The real final performance was a mere matinee of La bohème in Adelaide.

From this, she is remembered in the vernacular Australian expression "more farewells than Nellie Melba".

Her autobiography "Melodies and Memories" was published in 1925. There are several full-length biographies devoted to her, especially those of Hetherington, Therese Radic and, most recently (2009), Ann Blainey. Countless monographs, magazine articles and newspaper stories have been devoted to her, too. A motion picture called "Evensong" (1934) was a loose adaptation of her life based on the book by Beverley Nichols, and voiced by Conchita Supervia, a mezzo singer most unlike Melba. In 1946–1948 the ABC produced a popular radio series on Melba starring Glenda Raymond, who became one of the foundation singers of the Australian Opera (later Opera Australia) in 1956. Later the Australian Broadcasting Commission produced a more authentic mini-series on her life "Melba" (1987), starring Linda Cropper miming Yvonne Kenny, which does not quite convey the more exciting side to her story.


She returned to Australia but died in St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney in 1931, aged 69, of septicaemia which had developed from facial surgery in Europe some weeks before. The evidence for the facelift being the cause has been doubted in the latest biography of Melba –- the timeline of five months between operation and hospitalization makes this causation unlikely. The fever she had caught in Egypt on the way home, however, probably led to the blood poisoning. She was given a state funeral from Scots' Church, Melbourne, which her father had built and where as a teenager she had sung in the choir. Part of the event was filmed for posterity. Melba was buried in the cemetery at Lilydale, near Coldstream. Her headstone bears Mimi's farewell words: "Addio, senza rancor" (Farewell, without bitterness).

The funeral motorcade was over a kilometre long, and her death made front-page headlines in Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Europe. Billboards in many countries said simply "Melba is dead".


Statue of Dame Nellie Melba at Waterfront City, Melbourne Docklands.

Melba became associated with the song "Home sweet home". She inherited it from Adelina Patti as Prima Donna Assoluta and after many performances the piano would be wheeled out and she would accompany herself singing the song, so bittersweet for her as home was an 11,000 mile sea voyage away when in England. Joan Sutherland later continued the tradition of singing "Home sweet home" and sang it after her own farewell performance in Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots at the Sydney Opera House in 1990.

Melba, the last of the 19th century tradition of bel canto sopranos, is one of only two singers with a marble bust in the foyer of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The other is Adelina Patti. Sydney Town Hall has a marble relief bearing the inscription "Remember Melba", unveiled during a World War II charity concert in memory of Melba and her World War I charity work and patriotic concerts. Melba was closely associated with the Melbourne Conservatorium, and this institution was renamed the Melba Memorial Conservatorium of Music in her honour in 1956. The music hall at the University of Melbourne is known as Melba Hall.

In 1953, Patrice Munsel played the title role in Melba, a biopic about the singer.

The suburb Melba, Australian Capital Territory is named after Nellie Melba. All the streets are named after composers, singers and other musically notable Australians.

The current Australian 100 dollar note features the image of her face.

'Melba' House at the school Melbourne Girls College in Richmond, Melbourne, uses her name to remember a strong feminist set on leading and achieving.

Her name is associated with four foods, all of which were created by the French chef Auguste Escoffier:

  • Peach Melba, a dessert
  • Melba sauce, a sweet purée of raspberries and redcurrant
  • Melba toast, a crisp dry toast
  • Melba Garniture, chicken, truffles and mushrooms stuffed into tomatoes with velouté.[17]

Appearances in fiction

Melba makes an appearance in the 1946 novel Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd. Melba attends a garden party thrown by Julie and Fred Vane, mother of the eponymous heroine.

"Melba sang two or three songs, Down in the Forest, Musetta's song from Boheme, and finally Home, Sweet Home. She is described as having the "loveliest voice in the world".[18]

Melba is also referenced by way of Peach Melba in Good Eats.

See also


  1. ^ The Record Collector, vol 54(4) p294
  2. ^ The Record Collector, vol 54(4) p295
  3. ^ Blainey, 2008
  4. ^ Scott, 1977, p. 28
  5. ^ a b c Eaglefield-Hull, 1924
  6. ^ Scott, 1977, p. 29
  7. ^ Scott, 1977, p. 29
  8. ^ As was the case of Florence Mary Wilson, named Florence Austral and Elsie Mary Fischer renamed as Elsa Stralia; (both named after Australia). June Mary Gough was named June Bronhill (after Broken Hill).
  9. ^ Otago Daily Times, 17 February 1903, p. 6
  10. ^ The Press, February 20, p.5
  11. ^ Evening Post, 24 February 1903, p. 5
  12. ^ The Past Revisited by Marie Galway p. 217
  13. ^ TIME Magazine Cover: Nellie Melba - Apr. 18, 1927
  14. ^ First Empire Broadcast, held by the National Library of Australia
  15. ^ Recordings: From a Vault in Paris, Sounds of Opera 1907
  16. ^ Aspinall 1976, pp.4, 15.
  17. ^ Guardian, Famous Foodies: Nellie Melba
  18. ^ Lucinda Brayford by Martin Boyd, Lansdowne Press, p96, 1972 edition


  • Michael Aspinall, Nellie Melba: The London Recordings 1904-1926, Insert booklet to HMV reissue LP set RLS 719 (limited edition), (EMI, London 1976).
  • Ann Blainey, I am Melba Australian edn, (Black Inc. 2008); Marvelous Melba: The Extraordinary Life of a Great Diva, American Edition (Ivan R. Dee, 2009).
  • John Frederick Cone, Oscar Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera Company (University of Oklahoma Press 1966)
  • A. Eaglefield-Hull, A Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians (Dent, London and Toronto 1924).
  • Emma Eames, Some Memories and Reflections (D. Appleton & Co., 1927).
  • John Hetherington, Melba, a Biography (Faber and Faber, London 1967). (Contains extensive bibliography)
  • Nellie Melba, Melba Method (Chappell, London & Sydney 1926).
  • Agnes Murphy, Melba: A Biography (Chatto & Windus, London 1909).
  • George Bernard Shaw, Music in London (Constable, London 1931-33).
  • Serle, Percival (1949). "Armstrong, Helen Porter". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. 

External links

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