Nellie Melba and Landon Ronald taken on tour
Nellie Melba and Landon Ronald taken on tour

Article by Roger Neill

Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861 in Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, in Australia. Her father David Mitchell had emigrated from Scotland in 1852, becoming a successful builder in gold-rush Victoria. He was clearly a man of enormous energy, a quality inherited by his daughter. Both of Nellie’s parents were conventionally musical and she studied singing, piano and organ at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College. Her first vocal teacher was Ellen Christian, a pupil of Manuel Garcia junior at the Royal Academy of Music in London. Leaving school, she started lessons in Melbourne with the retired Italian tenor Pietro Cecchi.

Her mother died and her father took Nellie with him on a business trip to Queensland. It was there that she met and married the handsome son of an Irish baronet, Charles  Armstrong, together living the bush life in a house with a galvanised iron roof. Their son, George, was born at Port Mackay in 1883, but the marriage was not to last. Against the wishes of her husband, Nellie had already decided that singing was to be her life. She returned to Melbourne with her son, giving a number of concerts as “Mrs Armstrong.”

Her father then took them to London – he had been appointed Australian commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London. To be successful as an opera singer, she knew that she had to make her name in Europe. Initially she was rejected. Then came the turning point. Taking with her a letter of introduction from Elise Wiedermann-Pinschof, wife of the Austro-Hungarian consul in Melbourne and herself a former pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, Melba was auditioned in Paris by the leading teacher of the day, Madame Marchesi (1821-1913), a pupil of Manuel Garcia senior. Her response on hearing Nellie sing for the first time is well known. She called out to her husband: “Salvatore, viens, j’ai trouvé une étoile”. (Some sources report Marchesi as saying “enfin” rather than “viens”, but this seems unlikely – she had already coached a number of outstandingly successful singers.) With Marchesi, Nellie polished her technique, discovered how to preserve her vocal equipment (most Marchesi pupils had long careers), learned stagecraft, and in December 1886 changed her name to Melba in honour of her home town.

Melba was to become a great supporter of the contemporary music of her time. With Marchesi and later, she studied many of her roles directly with the composers – Gounod, Massenet, Délibes, Verdi, Saint-Saëns, Bemberg, Ambroise Thomas, Puccini and others – leaving us an irreplaceable recorded legacy. She was a pioneering advocate for the leading composers of French song of her day, Debussy, Chausson and Duparc amongst them. Asked whether her French accent was satisfactory, Délibes responded: “I don’t care whether she sings in French, Italian, German, English or Chinese, so long as she sings Lakmé.”

Competition between singers was intense in this, the last Golden Age. Melba was performing at the same time as an unparalleled range of outstanding sopranos, among them Emmy Destinn, Milka Ternina, Lilli Lehmann, Marcella Sembrich, Luisa Tetrazzini, Amelita Galli-Curci, Félia Litvinne, Geraldine Farrar, Emma Albani, Lillian Nordica, Johanna Gadski, Antonina Nezhdanova, Olive Fremstad, Rosina Storchio and Anna von Mildenburg, together with the extraordinary collection of stellar Marchesi pupils, including Emma Calvé, Emma Eames, Sibyl Sanderson, Mary Garden, Frances Saville, Frances Alda, Sigrid Arnoldson, Selma Kurz, Ellen Gulbranson, Suzanne Adams, Ilma di Murska and Marchesi’s daughter, Blanche. But Melba was to become a worldwide household name, Queen of Song for over 40 years.

At the heart of Melba’s success was Covent Garden in London, her “artistic home”. Here she was actively supported by an insider and leader of society, Gladys, Lady de Grey. The leading position at Covent Garden had been occupied in the previous generation by the legendary Adelina Patti, still performing in the early part of Melba’s career. It is no accident that on the grand staircase of the Royal Opera House today there are two marble busts – one of Patti and the other (by Mackennal) of Melba. Her debut there as Lucia di Lammermoor in 1888 had been less than noteworthy, but she returned the following year, triumphing in Rigoletto and Roméo et Juliette, with the legendary Jean de Reszke her Roméo. He was to be her favourite leading man until he retired in 1902.

Before arriving at Covent Garden, she had made her successful stage debut at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels as Gilda in October 1887. Over succeeding years she went on to win acclaim from audiences and critics in Paris, Monte Carlo, Saint Petersburg, Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin and Milan. It was at Monte Carlo that she first met the great love of her life, Louis-Philippe, Duc d’Orléans, exiled great-grandson of the last French king and pretender to the throne. There too, in 1902, she first performed with the rising young tenor, Enrico Caruso. Tickets for Melba- Caruso nights were to become the most sought-after of all.

In 1893 she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. The leading critic, Henry Krehbiel, wrote: “Mme Melba is at the zenith of her powers. Her voice is charmingly fresh and exquisitely beautiful.” Melba took the city by storm. What did she really sound like then? The New York critic WJ Henderson wrote: “No words can convey to a music lover who did not hear Melba any idea of the sounds with which she ravished all ears… Its power, its clarion quality differed from the fluty notes of Patti… It has been called silvery, but what does that signify? There is one quality which it had which may be comprehended even by those who did not hear her: it had splendor. The tones glowed with a star-like brilliance. They flamed with a white flame.” Her scale passages were likened to strings of pearls, her trill supreme, and George Bernard Shaw in London praised “her unspoiled, beautiful voice, and, above all, her perfect intonation”. Her friend, the great violinist Joachim, called her “Madame Stradivarius”.

Melba was never regarded as a great actress, although she made determined efforts to improve, coached by another friend, the great French actress, Sarah Bernhardt, and then later by a member of her inner circle in London, the Australian playwright Haddon Chambers.

Partly through ill-health, Melba’s ascendancy at the Met came to something of an abrupt end in 1901, and in 1907 she signed up for the newly-formed company in New York, Oscar Hammerstein’s Manhattan Opera. Having blocked fellow-Australian Frances Alda’s progress at Covent Garden, Melba was herself effectively barred from the Met after Alda had established herself there (eventually marrying its director, Giulio Gatti-Casazza).

She was always conscious of her worth: “ There are plenty of duchesses, but only one Melba,” she said. Bluntly direct, she made both close friendships and implacable enemies throughout her career, settling arguments with the unanswerable: “I am Melba”.

Melba was a proud patriot. “If you wish to understand me at all,” she wrote, “you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian.” After 16 years away, she returned to the country of her birth in 1902 to undertake a concert tour. Enthusiastic crowds greeted her everywhere. But it was after that tour that the serial libeller John Norton wrote a series of articles about her, most damagingly concerning her supposed excessive drinking. She returned to Australia in 1907, and again in 1909, touring the country extensively, this time visiting many outback communities as well as the major cities.

It was during this third visit that she conceived the idea of bringing her own opera company to Australia – and on her return to Europe, together with impresario JC Williamson, she started the process of recruiting the best performers. Melba hoped that her leading co-star, Caruso, would come, but he felt that it was too far, and his place was taken by the young Irish tenor, John McCormack. The Melba-Williamson Company opened with La Traviata at Her Majesty ’s Theatre in Sydney in September 1911, the evening ending with a massive ovation, Melba knee-deep in flowers. Melbourne followed the Sydney season, the diva performing many of her greatest roles in both cities. Following a sixty-city North American tour in 1913-14 with the violin virtuoso, Jan Kubelik, from the Great War on Melba lived increasingly at her Australian home, Coombe Cottage at Coldstream, near Melbourne, turning it into a centre for the Red Cross, and raising over £100,000 (some £7.5 million in current money). In 1918 she was created Dame Commander of the British Empire in recognition of her war work.

She also started teaching promising young Australian singers, and wrote extensively describing the “Melba Method”, derived fundamentally from Marchesi and the Garcias – on the care of the voice, practice, breathing, diction, voice production, vocal registers (and moving between them), singing pianissimo, the use of portamento, the trill, scale passagework, phrasing, serving the composer and the poet, physical fitness, what to eat and drink, posture, interpretation, study of the text, managing a career successfully and so on.

In 1924 and 1928, Melba brought her second and third opera companies to Australia – companies filled with outstanding singers of the day (among them Toti dal Monte, Hina Spani, Dino Borgioli and Apollo Granforte), denuding in particular La Scala, much to the chagrin of Toscanini. She gave her final performance on stage in Melbourne on 27 September 1928, aged 67 – the prayer scene from Otello and the third and fourth acts of La Bohème, fellow-Australians Browning Mummer y and John Brownlee sharing the stage with her, as they had at her Covent Garden farewell.

Back in London two years later she became unwell, some say from paratyphoid, others from septicaemia, possibly the result of minor surgery. She made her final return to her homeland and died at St Vincent ’s Hospital in Sydney on 23 February 1931. Her coffin was taken by special train from Sydney to Melbourne, stopping at towns and villages so that crowds of people could pay their final respects. She lay in state in the Scots Church in Collins Street, built by her father in 1873. From there her cortège moved through massed crowds and she was buried at Lilydale cemetery near her home. The choir sang Sullivan’s The Long Day Closes. “It was all so quiet, all along that way, so quiet, just silence,” recalled Melba’s daughter-in-law. Her simple grave carries one brief phrase from her most famous role as Mimì: “Addio, senza rancor.” Farewell, no hard feelings. The New York Times wrote: “Fortunate the generation that heard her, for we shall never hear her like again.”

Article by Roger Neill | Copyright (C) Roger Neill 2008

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