Nellie Melba was an island upon herself. Alongside her obvious talent, she excelled at the art of the exit. And having foodstuffs named in her honour. What have you done? Hmm?
The old(ish) Australian saying, “She’s had more farewells than Dame Nellie Melba”, one of our more colourful catchphrases, refers of course to the series of “farewell” performances given by Australia’s first major international opera star, Nellie Melba, towards the end of her life. We use the observation now to indicate someone who is taking an awfully long time to retire because they don’t really want to give up the limelight.
There are other Melba references you’re probably familiar with, such as Melba toast – small, thin, crisp toast ideal for pâté or savoury toppings – and Peach Melba, which is basically peaches and ice cream served with a raspberry sauce. These delicacies were invented in her honour by renowned French chef Auguste Escoffier. You have to be pretty famous to have dishes specially created for you by celebrity chefs.
Of course, Melba was famous. Very famous.
She began life as Helen Mitchell, born in 1861, and although she sang a little in her childhood, it wasn’t until after she married Charles Armstrong in 1882 that she took up singing lessons in earnest. The marriage, however, wasn’t happy and even the birth of her son George in 1883 didn’t help the relationship. But Nellie continued studying singing and had secured a number of performances in and around Melbourne in 1884-1885. In 1886, the family travelled to London. By then Helen had changed her professional name to Nellie Melba in honour of her hometown. (As an aside, the marriage between Nellie and Charles was formally dissolved in 1900.)
Melba’s European professional operatic debut was in 1887, when she sang Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in Brussels. She went on to sing in other popular operas such as Roméo et Juliette, Lucia de Lammermoor, La Traviata and Lohengrin, and before long Melba was appearing at London’s Covent Garden and Milan’s La Scala. From there, all the major opera houses of Europe and America awaited her, her commanding stage presence and lovely coloratura voice magnets for audiences and critics alike. And although it must be said that a handful of critics felt her vocal skills were not as refined as they could have been, audiences loved her and by all accounts the composers and conductors with whom she worked held her in high regard. She’d worked closely with popular composers Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi and Charles Gounod. If she gained approval from them as well as from mainstream media, then it’s probably safe to say that those who criticised her technique were being churlish. This scratchy recording from 1904 gives us a taste of her voice.
Melba often sang at private functions, including before all the crowned heads of Europe and Scandinavia. She was courted by high society, hobnobbed with the rich and powerful and was mobbed by adoring fans wherever she went. By 1908, Melba was reportedly the highest paid opera singer in the world, every concert a sell-out.
She made the first of her many recordings in 1904 and later in her career she could also be heard via direct radio broadcasts. And here’s a little known fact: in the early days of recording, artists received a flat session fee. Melba insisted that she also receive royalties on record sales, a move that would ultimately help recording artists ever after.
When she returned to Australia in 1902 for a concert tour that also included New Zealand, she was without doubt one of the most famous Australians of her time.
It’s here you have to try to understand the enormous impact Melba had on her compatriots. At that time, there had never truly been an Australian who enjoyed Melba’s level of fame. Her international reputation was astounding. Larger than life, Melba was not just a celebrated soprano, she’d also reportedly had an affair with a French nobleman during the previous decade. Rather than this provoking outrage, instead it added to her reputation as a sophisticated woman of the world: urbane, attractive, in demand. Wherever she went, crowds flocked to catch a glimpse of this legendary character. It didn’t matter if they knew little or nothing about opera, she was our first superstar – we were proud of what she’d achieved and in awe of her glamour and poise. She showed us that we could be as cultured and cosmopolitan as anyone else in the world.
Melba’s famous “sentimental tour” of 1909 took her to more remote parts of Australia. These performances were deeply significant events in our national cultural development. Many Australians heard opera for the first time because she made a point of taking opera out of the city and into the country. She visited towns like Forbes and Bathurst, Rockhampton and Glenn Innes, Bundaberg and Murwillumbah, places not usually on the concert trail.
“I couldn’t help it – it has to be perfection for me”. A diva to her dying day, Dame Nellie Melba helped put Australia on the international music map. One obituary claimed that she “stood forth at a period when Australia was little thought of in London”.
She once said, “If you wish to understand me at all you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian”. Proudly nationalistic, this further endeared her to the Australian public who had largely been conditioned to believe that anything they did was second best. So Melba’s triumphs were our triumphs. We asked ourselves, if we can produce world-class singers, what else can we do? She inspired dreamers to dream, and encouraged many a young singer or musician to embrace their Australianness and give it a go both at home and abroad.
Melba was also interested in leaving some kind of legacy and in 1915 she began teaching – without fee – at the Albert Street Conservatorium in Melbourne. Her lessons were one-on-one and not for the faint-hearted as she was incredibly tough on her students, but her influence was powerful and positive. At that time too, during World War I, Melba was actively fundraising for war charities such as the Red Cross and giving benefit concerts in North America for the war effort. She had a generous spirit, which was acknowledged when she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918 for her public wartime services.
By the mid-1920s, Melba was dividing her time between England and Australia and in 1926, she began the series of farewell concerts that gave rise to the saying mentioned at the beginning of this article. For each performance, long queues surrounded the venues; anyone who was anyone just had to be there. But in late 1930, she developed a fever and decided to return to the warmer Australian climate. Her health deteriorated and she died of septicaemia in Sydney in February 1931. The death of the prima donna made headlines across the globe. Thousands of mourners attended her funeral in Melbourne, and a deep sense of loss gripped the nation.
Here’s another thing you should know about Melba. Once when another soprano told her she was coming to visit Australia, Melba reportedly advised her to “sing ’em muck, it’s all they understand”. It sounds harsh and perhaps it is, but she also knew her audiences, which is why her concert repertoire primarily consisted of selections from the operas she was closely associated with such as Aida and La Bohème, as well as songs like Home Sweet Home, Coming Thro’ the Rye and Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Nothing too highbrow, but a charming mixture of pieces guaranteed to please her listeners.
For forty years, she was acclaimed as the greatest soprano of her generation and she never doubted herself. She once said, “If I’d been a housemaid I’d have been the best in Australia. I couldn’t help it – it has to be perfection for me”. A diva to her dying day, Dame Nellie Melba helped put Australia on the international music map. One obituary claimed that she “stood forth at a period when Australia was little thought of in London”. And although what we term “cultural cringe” was still alive and kicking well into the 1960s, Melba gave us the confidence to start seeing our own talents as Australians, not mere colonials.
What a dame.