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