Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931)

 

 

World renowned soprano.

 

In her lifetime, Dame Nellie Melba achieved international recognition as a soprano and enjoyed an unrivalled "super-star" status within Australia.

 

Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861 at Richmond, Melbourne. Her Scottish father, David Mitchell, was a building contractor and a good bass vocalist, and her mother, Isabella (nee Dow) was her first music teacher. She was educated at the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne and received her early singing tuition from Ellen Christian and the Italian tenor, Pietro Cecchi, who is credited with urging her to make singing her vocation.

 

After the death of her mother in 1881, followed by that of her youngest sister, Nellie accompanied her father to Mackay in Queensland, where he purchased a sugar mill. She married Charles Armstrong in Brisbane in 1882 and they had a son, George, the following year. The marriage was to end in divorce in 1900.

 

Returning to Melbourne in 1884, Nellie decided to become a professional singer and gave a number of concerts and recitals. In 1886, she had the opportunity to accompany her father to London. A successful audition with the celebrated Mathilde Marchesi in Paris gave her career the boost that it needed. She began lessons with Marchesi and was introduced to composers such as Delibes, Massenet and Gounod. It was Marchesi who persuaded her to adopt a suitable stage name. "Melba" was chosen as a contraction of the name of her native city.

 

In 1887, Melba made her operatic debut in Brussels as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto and went on to sing with great success in London, Paris, Milan, New York and other major cities. Within a few years she was regarded as one of the most accomplished and famous sopranos of her time. Although her initial reception at Covent Garden, London, in 1888 was not especially distinguished, after a successful debut in Paris, she subsequently established herself as Covent Garden's prima donna, and the "Queen of Song" maintained her own permanent dressing room there. Her most famous operatic role was that of Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème.

 

Melba's triumphant home-coming in 1902 involved a concert tour of all Australian States and New Zealand. Wherever she went, large and enthusiastic crowds turned out to greet her. She returned to Europe in 1903 but was to come back to Australia many times. In 1909, she toured the Australian outback. In the same year, she bought a property at Coldstream near Lilydale, Victoria, and employed the architect John Grainger (father of the composer, Percy Grainger) to design Coombe Cottage. In 1911, 1924 and 1928 Melba brought the Melba-Williamson Opera Company to Australia.

 

Based in Australia during the First World War, Melba worked tirelessly to raise funds for war charities. She also gave wartime concerts in North America. For her services to the war effort, Melba was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918. During this period she established a singing school at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music in Albert Street, now renamed the Melba Memorial Conservatorium of Music, providing her services free of charge. She often travelled from Lilydale to teach her "Melba's Girls".

 

Melba's voice was remarkable for its even quality over a range of nearly three octaves, and for its pure silvery timbre. Between 1904 and 1926 she made almost 200 recordings and in 1920 she became the first artist of international standing to participate in direct radio broadcasts.

 

Dame Nellie Melba gave a number of supposedly "final" performances. Her final Covent Garden performance was in 1926. In Australia, her final and emotional concerts took place in 1928. In the intervening year, she sang at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra, and was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire.

 

Melba died in Sydney on 23 February 1931 and was buried at the Lilydale Cemetery in Victoria.

 

 

 

 

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