Vocalist Nellie Melba (1861-1931) rose from a childhood in provincial Australia to become a world-renowned opera soprano who performed regularly at London's Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A diva with a commanding stage presence and a beautiful voice, Melba was the out-standing coloratura of her era and one of the biggest celebrities of the early 20th century.
In her day, the sometimes-outlandish, seemingly larger-than-life Melba was famed around the globe for her beautiful singing and her commanding stage presence. She helped popularize opera throughout Europe and the United States in an era where opera stars not only hobnobbed with royalty, but were often treated like royalty themselves. And no one demanded royal treatment more insistently than Melba. So well known was she that her name became attached to several popular foods named in her honor: Melba toast and the dessert, Peach Melba.
Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1861 as Helen Porter Mitchell, the future opera star was the third-born and first surviving child of Isabella and David Mitchell. Seven more children would follow. Melba grew up in the country estate of Lilydale, near Melbourne. As a child she loved the animals and landscape of Australia, and when the family rode into the bush—the wilderness areas of Australia—on a stagecoach, she would insist on sitting next to the driver so she could help spot deadly snakes. "From our earliest childhood we were taught to strike and kill," she later said. She had an indomitable will forged from the pioneering spirit of mid-19th-century Australia. It was said that her career was prophesized by the readings of a fortune teller that she and some friends encountered one day when she was ten. The woman gazed into Melba's hands and said: "I see you everywhere in great halls, crowded with people. And you are always the center of attraction—the one at whom all eyes are directed."
Her entire family was musically inclined, but Melba was the only child who persisted in music. She attended Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne, where Peitro Cecchi recognized her singing talent as a powerful and lilting soprano. However, opportunities for her to perform were limited, and Melba put any thoughts she had of a formal career in music on hold.
When she was 21, Melba married an Irish immigrant named Charles Armstrong. They moved to Queensland and had a son, George. But she envisioned languishing there in a rural area where there was no opera at all. Two months after George's birth, she left Queensland and moved to London, looking for a better opportunity to advance her dream career. After getting nowhere in London, she went to Paris and finally attended her first live opera. There, Madame Mathilde Marchesi became her opera teacher and sponsor. For her stage name she took the name Melba, short for Melbourne; Nellie was the family's nickname for her. She made her debut in Brussels in 1887, playing the role of Gilda in Rigoletto.
Became Celebrated Diva
The following year, in 1888, Melba made her London debut at Covent Garden, playing the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor. Until 1926, she would be a fixture at the famous London opera house. She also debuted in the United States in the role of Lucia, singing at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, where she would also perform regularly until she was in her mid-sixties.
Melba's singing style reflected the influence of her teacher, Marchesi. According to critics her vocals were the very definition of coloratura with their high range, precise intervals, clean intonation, and light but exacting attack. Other performers were often awed. As quoted in Opera News, Scottish soprano Mary Garden recalled hearing Melba hit a high C at Covent Garden: "The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden, came over like a star and passed us in our box, and went out into the infinite.… That note of Melba's was just like a ball of light."
Although Melba performed mostly in Europe and in New York, she occasionally visited her native Australia, returning for the first time in 1902 to a loud and large reception. Australians felt that she was proving that they could be as sophisticated as any nation, and her fans at home admired the way she cultivated culture while never denying her roots. Between 1909 and 1911 she lived in Coldstream, Australia, and opened the Melba Conservatorium of Music in Richmond. She taught at the conservatorium, a training ground for future opera singers.
For most of the nearly four decades of her career, Melba was the greatest diva of her time, even though she was not a great stage actress. Her immaculate, unforced coloratura singing was immortalized in a series of recordings made between 1907 and 1916, including a moving scene from Hamlet. At her impressive home she entertained many of Europe's royal families and was a powerful personality and celebrity. When she had an affair with the duke of Orleans in 1900, her husband divorced her. She did not remarry and had no other children. During World War I, she was unstinting in her war work, often performing at benefit concerts, and in 1918 she was made a dame of the British Empire.
So famous was Melba that two foodstuffs were named after her: Melba toast and Peach Melba, the latter created by the chefs at London's Savoy Hotel. A Melba doll also became popular with children. She lived lavishly, buying a house in London and remodeling it to resemble the French palace at Versailles. Her private rail car was always stocked with plover's eggs and fresh caviar, her favorite foods, and decorated with specially scented linens.
Feared and Admired
Melba was as much feared on the opera circuit as she was loved by admirers. The door of her dressing room at Covent Gardens had a sign that admonished: 'SILENCE! SILENCE!" She ran her career imperiously. In her 1925 autobiography, Melodies and Memories, she wrote: "The first rule in opera is the first rule of life. That is, to see to everything yourself. You must not only sing, you must not only act; you must also be stage manager, press agent, artistic advisor." She was always on guard to maintain her top ranking in opera, making sure she was always paid one pound more than the famed Enrico Caruso, and looking out for competitors. "When you are the diva, you have to be the best always." she wrote in her autobiography. She also described her drive for achievement thus: "If I'd been a housemaid I'd have been the best in Australia—I couldn't help it. It's got to be perfection for me."
Though relentless in advancing her career and often snobbish, Melba was also bawdy. She consumed as lavishly as she entertained. Though often considered too overweight for certain ingenue roles, she nonetheless pulled them off by the intensity of her singing, enrapturing audiences and fellow performers.
Melba's fans were ardent and spanned several continents. Once, when she was giving out autographs in St. Petersburg, Russia, an adoring man grabbed her pencil, bit it into pieces, and handed them out as cherished souvenirs. Not known for her humility, Melba in her autobiography wrote that the pencil pieces were received "with a reverence and an excitement which, I should imagine, must have compared favorably with that of the medieval peasants who scrambled for so-called sacred relics." According to legend, a dying man in London once heard her singing nearby and said: "If there is such beauty on earth as that voice, let me live," and he recovered. As she recounted in her memoirs, in one country town, people who couldn't get into a crowded hall crawled under the floorboards in order to hear her sing.
Queen of Farewells
Melba bade farewell to her native Australia in 1924, releasing a letter that said: "I have tried to keep faith with my art … to make the big world outside, through me, understand something of the spirit of my beloved country." She then made farewell tours and concerts worldwide, so many so, in fact, that a sarcastic expression arose: "More farewells than Nellie Melba." She sang at the opening of the nation's Parliament House in Canberra in 1927, and her final concert in Australia was in 1928. In 1931, refusing to accept her aging, Melba got a facelift, but the operation resulted in a blood infection, and she died in St. Vincent's Hospital in Sydney, the cause of her death not released to the public.
Ever concerned about her public perception, Melba had even orchestrated her funeral in advance. She had had a photograph taken of her portraying the dead Juliet of Romeo and Juliet, and after her death she was made up to look like the photo, with her bed strewn with frangipani, before anyone was allowed to see her. The funeral attracted national and international dignitaries to Melbourne, and she was buried at Lilydale Cemetery under a monument that depicts her reported last words: "Addio! Senzor Rancor"—"Farewell, without bitterness."
Melba, Nellie, Melodies and Memories, 1926, reprinted, Hodder, 1980.
Moran, William, Nellie Melba: A Contemporary Review, Greenwood Publishing, 1985.
Murphy, Agnes, Melba: A Biography, Da Capo Press, 1977.
Opera News, October 1996; November 2003.
"Dame Nellie Melba," Australian War Memorial Web site,http://www.awm.gov.au/forging/australians/melba.htm (December 28, 2003).
Dame Nellie Melba Research Centre Web site,http://www.arttechnology.com.au/lilyhist/melba.htm (December 28, 2003).
A. S. Hargreaves