Supreme Soprano Nellie Melba had a voice, once described as ‘pure and silvery like pearls on a string’, Nellie Melba’s voice was supreme and unique. In her day in the early Twentieth Century, she was the most famous soprano in the world and Australia’s first acclaimed performing artist. Melba sang at all the opera houses in Europe and America and was coached by Verdi himself. Many maintained that Puccini wrote the role of Madame Butterfly just for her.
From Child Prodigy to Prima Donna
Melba rose from child prodigy to almost royal status. Born Helen Porter (Nellie) Mitchell, eldest daughter of a builder, she adopted the name Melba in deference to her birth city, Melbourne and on advice from her singing teacher, the illustrious Mathilde Marchiesi of Paris. She soared to success in Europe as a prima donna, first lady of opera.
The next year 1889, she was feted as marvellous after performing for the Prince of Wales in London. From then on, she performed at each European opera season for years. In 1902, her return to Australia for a singing tour that was rapturous. Crowds lined the streets to wave and cheer, just like they did for visiting royalty.
The government even declared a public holiday for her. However, her devotion to Australia seemed less than Australia’s for her. But her country seemed to understand that her career necessitated a life lived overseas. The opera scene in Australia was minimal. No Sydney Opera House would exist for seventy long years.
Australia’s First Celebrity
Melba sung her way around the world and kept the company of the rich, the royal and the famous. She was a celebrity, Australia’s first and she became fabulously wealthy. Her home in London’s Mayfair was like a mini-Versailles palace. Everything glittered and was gold. She spared no expense.
When World War I erupted she again returned home to rally the Australian troops into action. She gave two fundraising concerts but thinking the Australian audience colonial, she sang no operatic or Italian arias. Instead, she treated her flag waving audience with ‘God Save the King’, ‘Home Sweet Home’ and ‘Coming through the Rye.’ She also taught at the Melbourne Conservatorium for some years, on the lookout for a ‘new Melba.’ But no one could achieve her three-octave span of voice.
Melba Becomes a Dame
Melba was generous to Australia during the war. She paid for Red Cross parcels to go to the troops and also did fundraising trips to USA. This work gained her the recognition of Dame of the British Empire and from then on, she was Dame Nellie Melba. She married once and at a young age, but the marriage was short-lived. After that, she was her own woman, devoted to her career in a time before women had careers, and were still strictly limited.
A Beautiful Voice Silenced
Being in the public eye made it difficult as she aged. She opted for plastic facial surgery in Switzerland to improve her looks but it all went wrong. In an age before antibiotics, she developed septicemia or blood poisoning that turned fatal. She died in 1931 and the world mourned as Melba sang no more. She was 67 years old. Silence is golden but not when a beautiful voice is lost.
Goodbye, No Hard Feelings
Crowds lined Spencer Street station as her coffin arrived from Albury, Australia. At each stop along the way, people had gathered to honour her. Like royalty, her funeral was a mass public event at the Scots Church her father had built. She was buried at her native Lilydale suburb with the headstone bearing the final words of Mimi from La Boheme,’ Addio senza rancore‘ meaning ‘Goodbye, no hard feelings!’
She is one of only two singers with a marble bust on the grand staircase of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden London. The Melbourne Conservatorium was renamed the Melba Memorial Conservatorium of Music in 1956.
A Sweet Ending
Melba also gave her name to the Peach Melba dessert just like Pavlova the ballet dancer had a dessert named for her. Both are classical and popular Australian desserts. I guess it is an honour to have a food named after you. Could be the topic for another post!
Singers raise their voices to entertain and express their own view of the world. But everyone has a voice whether they sing or write or just advocate for fairness or change. Use your voice for good, everyone has a unique voice.