Dame Nellie Melba GBE (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931), born Helen Porter Mitchell, legendary Australian opera soprano and one of the most famous sopranos, was the first Australian to achieve international recognition in the form. She and Dame May Whitty both became the first entertainers to become a Dame of the Order of the British Empire in 1918.
In 1886, she travelled to Europe with her family in an attempt to begin a musical career. With no success in London (although promised parts by Sir Arthur Sullivan), she continued to Paris where a prominent music teacher, Madame Mathilde Marchesi, agreed to tutor her. Melba's first starring role (as Gilda) was at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels and she returned to London to Lady de Grey's patronage, ensuring her success with the aristocratic audience at Covent Garden. Thus began a professional career in Australia, England, Europe and the United States that saw her as the prima donna at the Royal Opera House, 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. 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 (Melbourne, Vic.) holds a cloak made for Melba to wear in Lohengrin and the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, has a less glamorous velvet dress worn in Faust. 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 Caruso was singing at the Met. She rescued the house financially.
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.
Melba visited New Zealand in February 1903 after her tour of Australia. She arrived in Invercargill from Hobart and was welcomed by Sir Joseph and Lady Ward (Otago Daily Times, 17 February 1903, p.6.). After giving one concert in Dunedin she travelled to Christchurch. She was interviewed on the train. (The Press, February 20, p.5). The Wellington concert was on Monday 23 February and reviewed the following day (Evening Post, 24 February 1903, p. 5.).
Melba was the first Australian to appear on the cover of Time magazine, in April 1927.
Despite the angelic voice for which she was admired, she was also known for her demanding, temperamental diva persona; often she would make last-minute decisions before a performance, and often would deliberately upstage other sopranos during their performances, grabbing the attention for herself. She felt that the three words "I am Melba" were sufficient to explain her every wish or whim. She tolerated no rivals. The tenor John McCormack, on the night of his London debut, attempted to take a bow with her on stage, but she pushed him back forcefully. "In this house, no one takes a bow with Melba." McCormack, her preferred tenor, acknowledged the beauty of her voice, however, when he said that he had once failed to sing the response to Melba's phrase in Romeo et Juliette as he was listening to her singing.
If a singer's greatness can be gauged by how detested she was by colleagues, then Melba would undoubtedly be the greatest singer of all time. In Emma Eames' memoirs, Melba is an unnamed wicked force who frustrated opportunity after opportunity for Eames. Titta Ruffo, Rosa Ponselle, John McCormack, Luisa Tetrazzini, Frances Alda, and others also spoke of their unpleasant experiences with Melba. Emma 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!"
Melba described Florence Austral as "One of the wonder voices of the World", hardly the remark of a diva so ungenerous to her colleagues. 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. Tetrazzini was simply outsung by Melba and the Covent Garden audiences decided, not Melba. Her colleagues of the earlier days, such as the great de Reszke brothers, a tenor and a bass, did not complain of such treatment. On the recording of her Covent Garden farewell, in tears, she even thanks the "dear Stagehands".
Once, two tradesmen were working at Coombe Cottage and Melba overheard one of them say he had never heard her. Melba sat them down and accompanied herself in an impromptu concert at the piano, not stinting on the time. Of course there are many legends about Melba and the exact truth will probably never be known, as Melba, ever the businesswoman, encouraged them herself.
As a final proof of the kinder side of her nature, she undertook strenuous tours of small Australian country towns where she would often perform only in a wooden hall. 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.
She was appointed President of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
Some recordings of her voice were made in the early 20th century, and have been re-released on CD for contemporary audiences. The audio fidelity of the recordings reflects the limitations of the early days of commercial sound recording. However, even these early recordings show an almost seamlessly pure voice, with effortless coloratura, legato and perfect intonation. Melba had perfect pitch and 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 Adelina Patti, and unlike the drama of Tetrazzini, her purity of tone is probably the reason for her fame with British audiences with their choral and orchestral traditions.
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 biographies of her and countless articles and references. A film called "Evensong" (1934) was a loose adaptation of her life based on the book by Beverley Nichols. 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.
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".
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 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 to the Melba Memorial Conservatorium of Music in her honour in 1956. The music hall at the University of Melbourne is known as Melba Hall.
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 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:
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".