Melba, Nellie (1861–1931)
Melba, Nellie (1861–1931)
First Australian prima donna, with a voice like a nightingale, who ruled Covent Garden for nearly 40 years. Name variations: Dame Nellie Melba; Helen Porter Armstrong. Born Helen Porter Mitchell on May 19, 1861, in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia; died of paratyphoid fever on February 23, 1931, in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia; daughter of David Mitchell (a building contractor) and Isabella (Dow) Mitchell; studied singing with Pietro Cecchi, 1879–86, and Mathilde Marchesi, 1886–87; married Charles Armstrong, on December 22, 1882 (divorced 1900); children: one son, George Armstrong (b. October 16, 1883).
Decided to make career of singing (1883); moved to London (1886); studied with Marchesi in Paris (1886–87); changed name to Melba (December 31, 1886); made grand opera debut in Brussels (1887); made Covent Garden debut (1888); made first Australian tour (1902); made first Australian country town tour (1909); co-founded Melba-Williamson Opera Company (1911); made Dame Commander of the British Empire (1918); published autobiography Melodies and Memories (1925); gave Covent Garden farewell concert (June 8, 1926); returned to Australia for farewell tour (January 1927); made Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire (1927); gave final opera performance (August 7, 1928).
Main opera roles (details of first performances are noted where known; Melba performed all these roles frequently throughout her long career): Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto (debut, October 13, 1887, at Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie, Brussels); Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata (1887 season at the Monnaie, Brussels); Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor (first sung during 1887 season at the Monnaie, Brussels, then debut May 24, 1888, at Covent Garden, London); Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette (debut June 15, 1889, at Covent Garden); Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème (July 1, 1899, Covent Garden); Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, Ophelie in Thomas' Hamlet, Nedda in Leoncavallo's Pagliacci (all 1893, at Covent Garden); Rosina in Rossini's The Barber of Seville; Desdemona in Verdi's Otello.
Perhaps the greatest prima donna the opera world has ever known, Nellie Melba was born into a prosperous Australian family on May 19, 1861. Both her mother Isabella Dow Mitchell and her father David Mitchell had immigrated from Scotland to settle in Melbourne (now the capital city of Victoria), where David, predicting that many people would need houses once the Australian gold rush ended, set up as a brick-maker and building contractor. His prediction proved true, and he established a good life for himself and his family, which eventually grew to include eight surviving children. In the 1860s, Australia had been colonized for just over 70 years, and society was not sophisticated. Only 25 years old, Melbourne had grown rapidly during the gold rush days into a city of about 140,000 residents, and although it was the financial center of the country it was a dry, uninteresting place. There was no operatic tradition, and people were more concerned with making a living in this new, difficult country than in developing a rich culture. Nonetheless, Melba's family life in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond was musical; her mother was a talented pianist, organist, and harpist, her father played the violin and sang bass, and her sister Belle and brother Ernest both sang well. Melba, Belle, and Ernest were also excellent whistlers, which was considered a vulgar habit, particularly for girls. Despite this, Melba, who rarely stopped what she was doing to please others, hummed constantly as a child, often driving her mother nearly to distraction. (She later realized that humming was excellent exercise for the voice, and employed this method when teaching her own students.)
Her first public appearance was at age eight, when she sang some songs and accompanied herself on the piano at a concert at the Richmond Town Hall. Though she was not an infant prodigy, she was convinced that she had musical genius, and as a child she was disappointed in her family's apparent lack of interest in her singing. Her father in particular, while proud of her abilities, never praised her. Years later, she noted in her autobiography: "Throughout my life there has always been one man who meant more than all others, one man for whose praise I thirsted, whose character I have tried to copy—my father."
After receiving her early schooling from her mother and two aunts, all of whom were well
educated, Melba became a boarder at Leigh House, a private school in Melbourne. She continued studying music, and at the age of 12 became the organist at Scots Church, a Presbyterian church built by her father. In 1875, at age 14, she attended the new Presbyterian Ladies' College, where she had her first formal singing studies and continued her organ and piano lessons. Elocution (the art of public speaking), English and music were her favorite subjects. A lively, rebellious tomboy with a direct personality, able even at that age to dominate any gathering, Melba avoided the daily 6 am cold showers at Leigh House by bathing under an umbrella and occasionally muddied her Sunday clothes to avoid having to go to church. She often went skinny-dipping with the local boys in the Yarra River after school, and she would continue to prefer the company of men throughout her life.
In 1879, Melba began singing lessons with Pietro Cecchi, an Italian tenor who had settled in Melbourne. Another student, hearing her sing an aria, commented to Cecchi: "What a glorious voice that girl has!" "Yes," he replied. "It's going to enthrall the world." Although Melba by then had begun to have serious thoughts about a career in singing, she kept them to herself, for daughters of wealthy parents in the Australian colonies were not expected to have a career. A good marriage and plenty of children was what was expected, with painting, embroidery and flower-arranging to pass the time.
After completing her education in 1880, Melba stayed home to look after her ailing mother, sharing household duties with her sister Annie and continuing her piano and singing studies. Isabella Mitchell died in October 1881, and only three months later Vere, at four years old the youngest daughter, became ill and died suddenly. The family was devastated. After some months of grieving, David Mitchell decided to combine rest with work, agreeing to build a sugar mill near Mackay, a seaport in North Queensland. His two eldest daughters accompanied him on the 2,200-kilometer trip by steamboat from cold Melbourne to tropical Queensland. Queensland was wild country, and around Mackay there were only a few thousand settlers working in the sugar-cane industry. The elegant sisters were therefore a welcome addition to the town, and Melba soon met Charles Nesbitt Armstrong, an Irish baronet's son who was the manager of a nearby sugar plantation. Armstrong was handsome, young, and well educated, with good breeding and a title, but he also had no money, a strong temper, and a reputation as a wild and adventurous equestrian. Despite her father's opposition to her choice of a penniless man, Melba married Armstrong on December 22, 1882.
From the start, their marriage was doomed. Armstrong had no interest in music, and Melba had no intention of being a dutiful and submissive wife. She briefly resumed her singing lessons with Cecchi when they went to Melbourne for their honeymoon, and after returning to their home in a small town near Mackay in April 1883, she became increasingly unsettled. The constant rain, lack of high society, and primitive living conditions did not suit her, and she found no outlet for her endless energy, curiosity and ambition. Melba kept singing, and occasionally gave public concerts in Mackay. During this first year of her marriage, she started to yearn for a career in singing. She also became pregnant and gave birth to her only child, George, on October 16, 1883.
After she had a number of quarrels with Armstrong about her career, he finally agreed to let her return to Melbourne to continue her studies and to help their finances, which were in very bad shape. She wrote to Cecchi in late 1883, telling him of her decision. On January 19, 1884, Melba and her son boarded a ship for Melbourne, leaving Armstrong behind at the plantation. She never returned to Mackay. Her father was happy to have his daughter and grandson living with him, and although he did not approve of Melba's singing ambitions, he did not try to deter her. She continued her lessons with Cecchi, fine-tuning her voice, and gave her first serious concert on May 17, 1884, at the Melbourne Town Hall. Here she met John Lemmone, an Australian flautist who became one of her dearest friends and acted as her manager and accompanist in later years.
Melba wanted desperately to travel to Europe, but had no opportunity to do so until her father was chosen to go to London as the state's commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition. She accompanied him, along with her husband and son and her sisters Annie and Belle, when he sailed for London on March 11, 1886. Soon after their arrival on May 1, Melba obtained an appointment in Paris with the world-famous singing teacher Mathilde Marchesi , and moved to Paris with her son in July 1886. It is written that after Marchesi heard Melba sing she ran out of the room to tell her husband Salvatore, "I have found a star!" Melba was taken on by Marchesi, who promised to make something extraordinary of her in one year. Life was sometimes difficult, with long hours, a young son to care for, little money, and occasional visits from her argumentative husband (who was living in England), but Melba thrived on the work.
Cecchi had been an excellent teacher, and Melba owed much of her technique and success to him. However, in her autobiography she wrote that, just before she left for London, Cecchi insisted that she owed fees for past lessons, and threatened to seize her luggage if she did not pay up. Although she claimed that she refused to speak of him after this, and had to unlearn everything he had taught her, it is known that she wrote friendly letters to him after her arrival in London. In any case, she could not have achieved such a quick success in Europe without his training. John Hetherington, in his biography Melba, wrote that once she became a prima donna, "she preferred to be known as a pupil, not of the great Mathilde Marchesi and the obscure colonial teacher Pietro Cecchi, but of the great Mathilde Marchesi alone." Melba was a self-acknowledged snob who often dramatized the events of her life, and much of her autobiography, though entertaining, is not accurate. "She liked to re-shape, to re-order, and then to embroider," writes Hetherington.
Melba began to sing at soirées (evening parties) around Paris, and became known for her coloratura singing (with florid, ornamental vocal trills and runs)—she had a silvery, birdlike, delicate voice, well suited to light lyric opera roles. Critics tended to be divided—some said that she was shrill, unimaginative, icy, cold and heartless; others described her voice as pure, heavenly, faultless, silvery, golden, pure crystal, effortless. From all accounts, however, she had an incredible facility and technical mastery, and could sing her full range (from B flat below middle C to F two octaves up, a full three notes above the range of most sopranos) very softly while still making herself heard over a full orchestra.
She rang in the new year of 1887 with a new last name, Melba, derived from her hometown of Melbourne and designed to catch the public's imagination. At last, on October 13, 1887, she made her European debut, singing the role of Gilda in Verdi's tragic opera Rigoletto, at the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, Belgium. (That she was able to appear at all was due only to the sudden death of the Czech impresario Strakosch, who had held her contract and refused her permission to sing there.) Madame Marchesi later wrote: "The very next day and afterwards it was nothing but a chorus of praise everywhere; the entire press of Brussels declaring the young artiste to be a star of the first magnitude."
In the midst of all this, Armstrong arrived unexpectedly in Brussels, where he and Melba continued to argue. This appears to have marked the end of their marriage, for they kept apart after that, although they would not divorce until 1900. George remained with Melba for a time before attending boarding school in England, after which he went with his father to Texas.
In the meantime, a new life had opened up for Melba. It was an exciting and complicated yet comfortable existence, filled primarily with the many roles as well as stagecraft, makeup and acting skills she needed to learn. Among the friends who helped her were Australian playwright Haddon Chambers, the famous French actress Sarah Bernhardt , and numerous composers. As Melba wrote: "I have been most fortunate, for in the operatic roles with which I am most closely identified, I had the invaluable assistance of the composers themselves—Gounod, Verdi, Delibes, Ambroise Thomas, Leoncavallo, Saint-Saëns, Massenet, Pucchini."
She made her debut at London's famed Covent Garden on May 24, 1888. Lady de Grey , a powerful patron of the theater, had forced the reluctant manager, Augustus Harris, to hire her. There was little publicity, and the concerts were less than successful. Melba fled to the Continent, vowing never to return. However, Lady de Grey wrote to her persistently, promising that things would be done differently the next time if only she would come back. Eventually Melba agreed, and gave her second Covent Garden concert on June 15, 1889, appearing opposite tenor Jean de Reszke in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. The house was packed, and this time she conquered the city. Soon "Melba Nights" at Covent Garden brought out royalty, diamond tiaras, furs, and starched white shirts. Lady de Grey became Melba's first sponsor, important ally and great friend, supporting her at Covent Garden and introducing her into fashionable London society. Jean de Reszke also became a lifelong friend and colleague, with neither showing any envy of the other's success—a rare trait in opera singers generally, and in Melba as well.
Another great friend was the young duke of Orléans, a member of the French royal family, with whom Melba had a love affair between 1890 and 1892. Eventually, however, legal action from her husband and the gossip columns of European newspapers brought the relationship to an unhappy end. She never discussed details of their liaison, but it seems that she never had such a great love again, and sorely missed it. When it came to friends, Melba preferred them wealthy and titled. She loved knowing royalty, and sang before all the crowned heads of Europe.
Domineering and outspoken, Melba was a law unto herself. She would write to her sisters in Australia and tell them how to raise their children. She also became very wealthy, earning on average £1,000 per week, and often as much as $10,000 for one (American) concert—a phenomenal amount in those times. For many years, she held the record for highest-paid performer in Australia. Like her father an astute entrepreneur, Melba never squandered her wealth. She invested in property, and often financially helped young Australian artists and musicians. Still, when she traveled—which was most of the time—it was done in royal style. Possessed of a complicated, unpredictable personality, Melba could be kind and generous, as well as arrogant, aggressive, and ruthless. She was realistic about her abilities, impatient with fools, shrewd with money, and worked extremely hard. She would send free tickets year after year to anyone who had helped her, or cook bacon and eggs herself for hard-working musicians. Yet she would also make sure that any talented young soprano who threatened her position as prima donna had no chance of singing at Covent Garden, and she made many operatic enemies. The famous chef Escoffier created the dessert Pêche Melba in her honor. Melba toast, thinly sliced dried bread, was also named after her, as were many products such as perfumes, often without her consent.
In 1899, Puccini selected her as the ideal Mimi for his opera La Bohème, coaching her thoroughly in the role. Mimi suited her well, and from the time she first performed it at Covent Garden that year it became both a favorite of hers and her most famous role. The tenor Enrico Caruso often played Rodolfo to her Mimi, and they were a wonderful team. Practical jokes were popular with her and her friends both on stage and off; during a performance of the tragic La Bohème, Caruso once put a hot sausage in her hand instead of the expected cold key; Melba barely managed to keep a straight face.
In the early years of the new century, she was constantly in demand. Finally, after living in Europe for 14 years, she returned home to tour and visit her family. Melba was welcomed home like royalty, and her Australian tour in 1902 was a huge success. In 1904, she began making gramophone recordings which helped popularize that machine in England; she would make over 150 recordings in all. Melba appeared in America as well, at New York's Metropolitan Opera House and at Hammerstein's Manhattan Opera House, and toured most of Europe, including Russia. In 1909, she fulfilled a dream by giving her first Australian country town tour, keeping ticket prices low to allow all social classes to hear her. In later years, she ran "Concerts for the People" in Melbourne and Sydney on the same principle.
During 1911 and 1912, Melba spent a great deal of time in Australia, setting up the Melba-Williamson Opera Company with J.C. Williamson, an Australian theater magnate. She also oversaw, imperiously, the construction of a home she named Coombe Cottage, in Lilydale, Victoria, where she had loved to visit as a child.
Returning to Australia when World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Melba worked tirelessly for the war effort, energetically knitting socks and singing in benefit concerts in Australia, the U.S., and Canada that raised over £100,000 for war charities. Her father died in March 1916, while she was sailing back to Australia after a concert tour in America. That year Melba also taught singing at the Albert Street Conservatorium in Melbourne. After the war, in 1918, she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her services to the war effort. Her son George had returned to Australia with his second wife Evie, an accomplished mezzo-soprano who would occasionally sing in concerts with Melba, and the three spent much time traveling together.
Melba looked forward to her return to London in 1919, but once there she was dismayed by the changes the war had wrought. The Edwardian days of "Melba Nights" at Covent Garden were gone. The city was war-torn and dirty, and many of her friends had died in the intervening years. She wrote about that opening concert at Covent Garden:
I find myself looking into the great space of the auditorium, and feeling once again that I am singing to an audience of ghosts. Lady de Grey had gone, Alfred de Rothschild had gone, and so many others, all gone; and yet I felt them there, I seemed in my imagination to see their faces again, looking out from the shadows in their boxes, and it was for them rather than for this great audience that I sang.
Melba's autobiography Melodies and Memories was published in 1925, ghostwritten by a young British writer, Beverley Nichols, who would later remark that "ghosted is a very apposite word, because she was so anxious to appear as an angel of sweetness and light that all the guts and humour had to be taken out if it." Despite this, the book reveals much about her personal and professional lives.
Melba finally gave her Covent Garden farewell concert on June 8, 1926—a sad and painful moment, as she said goodbye to her artistic home of nearly 40 years. Unbeknownst to her, the concert, including her emotional farewell speech, was recorded for posterity. Although this was the first of many farewell performances over the next two years, the Covent Garden event was the most important, as it signaled the beginning of the end. At her final opera performance on August 7, 1927, given when she was 66, her voice still sounded fresh and young—an incredible accomplishment. The careful treatment of her instrument (apart from one disastrous attempt at Wagner in 1896, which nearly ruined her vocal cords), as well as her natural ability, had extended her career to an astonishing 40 years.
Just as the Australian summer was starting in November 1928, Melba traveled to Europe for one last visit to her old haunts. She also visited Egypt, where she became ill with an unidentified virus similar to typhoid. She returned to Australia in November 1930, and was hospitalized in Sydney soon afterwards. Dame Nellie Melba died on February 23, 1931, at age 69. Tributes poured in from far and wide. She was buried at Lilydale, next to her father. Her gravestone bears the words Addio, senza rancore (Farewell, without bitterness)—the dying words of Mimi in La Bohème.
Hetherington, John. Melba. Melbourne: F.W. Cheshire, 1967.
Melba, Dame Nellie. Melodies and Memories. NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1926, reprinted 1970.
Melba, Nellie. "Music as a Profession," in The Lone Hand. February 1, 1909, pp. 357–362.
Sadie, Stanley, ed. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Volume 12. London: Macmillan, 1980.
Wechsberg, Joseph. Red Plush and Black Velvet. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1961.
Marchesi, Mathilde. Marchesi and Music: Passages from the Life of a Famous Singing Teacher. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898.
McDonald, Roger. Melba, the novel. Sydney: Collins, 1988.
Melba, Nellie. "The Gift of Song," in Century Magazine. June 1907.
Moran, William, ed. Nellie Melba, A Contemporary Review, with discography. London: Greenwood Press, 1985.
Rosenthal, Harold. Two Centuries of Opera at Covent Garden. London: Putnam, 1958.
Melba (113 min., Technicolor film), starring American soprano Patrice Munsel as Dame Nellie Melba, directed by Lewis Milestone, produced by Sam Spiegel, Horizon, 1953.
Peach Melba: Melba's Last Farewell, a play by Theresa Radic . Sydney: Currency Press, 1990.
Lemmone, John. Collection of papers relating to Dame Nellie Melba, 1911–1928. Letters, cards, photographs, financial statements and news cuttings, located in the National Library of Australia, Canberra, ACT, Australia.
Denise Sutherland , freelance writer, Canberra, Australia