Dame Nellie Melba GBE 1861-1931

Dame Nellie Melba

Dame Nellie Melba

Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861 in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond.

In Paris she studied under the famous and formidable Mathilde Marchesi who, in just a year, transformed ‘Mrs Armstrong’ from a talented beginner into a brilliant coloratura – Nellie Melba.

Melba made her debut at Brussels as Gilda in Rigoletto in 1887.

The Voice of Australia

In her family memoir, Melba’s grand-daughter, Pamela, the Lady Vestey, writes: ‘Today it is
hard to realise how natural, or even innocent, was the adulation given by the Australian public to a woman who was hailed as “the world’s greatest singer”, “our Melba”, “our greatest daughter”. In those days the phrase caused no embarrassment. Rather than exciting envy, her success was seen as a compliment, and it encouraged other Australians. Of course, she had many detractors; their words were noted and used by later critics. Madame Marchesi had reminded Melba at the beginning of her career that she was being spoiled with too much praise; that praise continued throughout her long career. The legend soon believes itself. The wonder is that Nellie remained at heart such a simple and practical woman.’

Melba. The name still has magic.

Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861 in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. She took the name ‘Melba’ from her home city. Her love of her homeland remained with her all her life. In her autobiography she explained, ‘If you wish to understand me at all, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian. I shall always come back to the blue mountains, in the heart of the vast, deserted continent that gave me birth.’

After initial studies in Melbourne with Pietro Cecchi, a disastrously unhappy marriage, and experience as an associate artist in a concert tour managed by George Musgrove, she went to Europe in 1886. In Paris she studied under the famous and formidable Mathilde Marchesi who, in just a year, transformed ‘Mrs Armstrong’ from a talented beginner into a brilliant coloratura – Nellie Melba.

Melba made her debut at Brussels as Gilda in Rigoletto in 1887. Soon after, she triumphed at Covent Garden, the great London opera house that she would call her ‘spiritual home’. Nevertheless her heart was in Australia.

By 1902, when she returned to her homeland for a concert tour again managed by George Musgrove, she was recognised as the most accomplished and most famous soprano of her time. She had sung at the Met in New York, at La Scala, at the Imperial Opera in St Petersburg, and with Caruso in Monte Carlo. Police had to control the vast crowds that gathered just to see her enter the Melbourne Town Hall for her first concert. She went on to sing in Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. For her third Sydney concert she received the highest fee ever paid a singer for a concert appearance, bettering by £350 the £2000 that P.T. Barnum had paid Jenny Lind many years before, but the triumph was soured by the rampaging John Norton. His malicious campaign to vilify Melba in the pages of Truth sullied the later stages of the tour and irreparably stained her reputation.

Biographical references

John Hetherington: Melba,  F.W. Cheshire, 1967
Nellie Melba: Melodies and Memories, Thornton Butterworth, 1925; republished by Nelson, 1980
William R. Moran: Melba, a Contemporary Review, Greenwood Press, 1985
Thérèse Radic: Melba, the Voice of Australia, Macmillan, 1986
Pamela Vestey: Melba – A Family Memoir, Phoebe Press, 1996