Melbourne’s prima donna conquered the loftiest brows around Europe and became a national treasure at home, writes Helen Razer
"Is it too much to say that she was the greatest Australian?” asked Melbourne’s morning paper The Argus in 1931. By the time Dame Nellie Melba had died at the age of 69, the question of her greatness had already been settled. Melba’s skill as a performer, once described by a reviewer as “monotonous” in its brilliance, was assured and her status as a celebrity in Melbourne and the nation was so immense it is difficult to grasp.
Perhaps if we think of ten Kylies, add a pinch of Princess Mary and dress the lot up in John Farnham’s penchant for farewells, we begin to have just some idea of what the gal meant to her hometown. She was the city’s and the young nation’s first legitimate celebrity. Folks flipped their lids for the remarkable voice and magnetic presence that began life in Richmond in 1861 as Helen Porter Mitchell.
Having conquered Covent Garden and some of the loftiest brows in Europe, Melba returned to the city of her birth for the first time in 1902 to a true diva’s welcome. The young ladies from Presbyterian Ladies’ College, Melba’s alma mater, shrieked “cooee” as she passed by and men tipped their hats to the woman for whom Madama Butterfly was especially written.
Some records tell us that Melba did not take to rival sopranos well and could be occasionally heard to sing their parts (far, far better) from the wings. This, of course, is what we hope for from a true prima donna.
But, it was an arduous route to this super-stardom; and not arduous in the way that it was for the Kylies or the Johns. Melba had not only to pay her dues as all stars must but she was forced to manfully fight for the right to use an instrument so perfect even Puccini would one day seek it out.
Melba’s father discouraged his daughter’s interest in professional singing; interviewed in Paris, she would later recall “My father, like many other fathers before him, held the idea of a public career for his daughter in detestation.” Undaunted, “I persevered.” Mercifully, she did not persevere with a marriage to one Charles Armstrong; a cad who beat his young wife as she endured life on a sugar plantation in Queensland.
Her vocal folds survived their brief time in the subtropics with a brute and Melba returned to the beloved city from which she would soon take her name. She made her public debut at the Town Hall and established herself to the degree she was able to study with the very great teacher and mezzo-soprano Mathilde Marchesi in Paris. Of Marchesi, she would say “I cannot tell you what I owe to her tuition!” She also owed her the rather ingenious stage-name of Melba.
“Melba”, selected as an Italian rendering of “Melbourne”, suited the lady very well. Her voice, studied by the world’s most eminent throat specialists, rang out in Europe’s greatest operas. Her character, however, remained devoutly and consciously Australian. 'Her voice always made me mindsee Australia's landscapes.” said celebrated composer Percy Grainger with characteristic trippiness.
After a thousand farewells around the world and audiences with the finest composers of the age, Melba retired to Coldstream where she lived out her final years; singing from the wings.
1861, May 16 Born Helen Porter Mitchell to Isabella and David in Richmond, Victoria
1867 First public performance. Melba selects ‘Comin’ Thro’ the Rye’, a song to which she would develop a sentimental attachment and would continue to perform. On this occasion, the six-year-old mini diva chooses to hum, not sing, the tune
1880 The death of Melba’s mother prompts a family move to Far North Queensland where a marriage to Charles Armstrong is quickly dissolved and best forgotten
1884 Professional debut at the Melbourne Town Hall; “She sings like one of ten thousand” reads the review in The Australasian
1886 Following a brief and undistinguished turn in London, Melba meets soprano and tutor Mathilde Marchesi; the woman who will offer her a new name and direction in voice
1887 A glorious debut is had at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in Rigoletto
1889 Melba herself dates her success to “quite distinctly from the great night of 15 June” when she sings in Roméo et Juliette at Covent Garden thereby beginning her close association with this opera house throughout its golden age
1902 The great lady returns to Australia in victory, breaking hearts and records for ticket sales. She will return frequently
1913 After triumphs at La Scala, in New York and in the world’s greatest opera houses, Melba returned again to Covent Garden to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her first appearance there
1914-1918 The period of the Great War sees Melba emerge not only as a great fundraiser for the efforts of Australian and English troops but as a patron and teacher in the establishment of what will become Melbourne's Melba Memorial Conservatorium
1924 Melba begins the first of many farewell tours. The phrase “doing a Melba” will become an Australian idiom used to mean “a long goodbye”
1930 Ailing from a fever she never manages to shake off, Melba performs for the last time at a charity event in London
1931 Melba returns to Coombe Cottage in Coldstream, Victoria to live in the home she had commissioned John Grainger, father of Percy, to design some years earlier. Struck while visiting Sydney with septicemia – the result of a facial surgery undertaken in Europe – Melba dies at St Vincent’s Hospital a few months short of her 70th birthday