Nellie Melba (Dame)
(19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931)
Dame Nellie Melba, born Helen Porter Mitchell, was an Australian opera soprano who became a legend.
As a matter of interest see below....
She became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and the early 20th century and she was a veritable superstar packing halls and theatres wherever she appeared.
She had a lyrical voice that was tonally pure and she had an excellent secure technique that among other things, gave her excellent control & trilling abilities.
Nellie Melba was the first Australian to achieve international stardom as a world class classical musician.
Having established herself on the local Melbourne scene in Australia she travelled to London but surprisingly wasn't offered the contracts by either the Carla Rosa Opera Company or Sir Arthur Sullivan as she had hoped for.
Instead she went to Paris to study with the world renowed singing teacher Mathilde Marchesi and in 1887 she took her first starring role as Gilda in Verdi's Rigoletto at the Théâtre de La Monnaie, Brussels in 1887.
On Mme Marchesi's advice, she adopted the stage name of "Melba" - a contraction of the name of her home city...starting a tradition which was continued in later years by Australian sopranos, Florence Austral (Australia) and June Bronhill (Broken Hill).
In the same year she made her debut at Covent Garden but she made little impression.
It was only with the assistance of influential patroness Lady de Grey in 1888 that she was finally engaged to sing the role of Lucia in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor that things finally started to happen for her. The opening night was a huge success and by the time the season finished she was already established her as one of the foremost stars at Covent Garden. It was an association that was to continue for the next forty years.
In Paris she debuted as Ophélie in Thomas' Hamlet before returning to London to play Juliette in 1889. She returned to Paris again to play Marguerite, Juliette, Ophélie, Lucia and Gilda and so established herself as a star on both sides of the Channel.
As the reigning prima donna at Covent Garden through to the 1920s Nellie Melba was feted by royalty while her recordings for HMV always cost at least one shilling more than any other singer's recordings and had their own distinctive mauve label.
Every opening night of hers was a glittering occasion blazing with jewels and with Melba herself dressed to the nine's to be the prima donna she was- in the highest fashion couture of the time.
Her legend grew and she appeared in the USA and travelled to Russia as well as to Australia to give concerts in halls and local theatres.
Melba visited New Zealand in February 1903 after her tour of Australia and it was around this time that her name was given to a dessert (a concoction of peaches, cream or icecream) became "Peaches Melba".
Her attitude to the unsophisticated audiences of the time was plain enough in the advice she gave Clara Butt - "Sing 'em muck - it's all they understand!" she told her- yet despite this it is clear from the number of concerts she gave in remote and outback areas she did nonetheless still enjoy the links with the thousands of ordinary people she entertained very generously.
She also described the City of Adelaide as "that city of the three P's— Parsons, Pubs and Prostitutes."
Puccini wrote the role of Butterfly with Melba in mind- but she never sang it onstage although she was the first to sing the role of Nedda in I Pagliacci in London after its Italian premier.
In New York she was the first to sing Mimi in Puccini's La Bohème.
Her many farewells in Australia started the saying "more farewells than Nellie Melba".
It was during one of these farewell tours and following a trip to Egypt that she became very ill in Australia and died.
It has only recently been revealed she did in fact have an early surgical procedure that nowadays would be called face lift in Egypt- and a form of septicemia that set in later was the likely cause of her sudden death.
Like Caruso, Dame Nellie Melba was a keen business woman who did know how to make the most of oportunities. Beyond the wonderful voice that she had - she made it to the pinnacle of success at a time when a woman's role in society was far more governed and restricted than it is today.
Known for her spirited responses in the vernacular, she was to the end of her days very much an Australian character.
An excellent miniseries based on her life story was made in the early eighties and the soprano who provided Melba's voice was Australian soprano, Yvonne Kenny.
As a matter of interest... this bio page of Dame Nellie is the most visited bio on this website...so it seems she's still very much with us still and shows no sign of going away soon!
Nellie Melba is one of the featured stars on our "Legends" product range.