New light on Dame Nellie Melba
I AM MELBA: A Biography
by Ann Blainey
(Melbourne: Black Inc.)
Paperback: 400 pages
Rec. price: AUD$27.95
Nellie Melba was Australia’s first international superstar. Her long career as an opera singer embraced the old world and the modern, from the era of the great opera composers when it was necessary to go to an opera house to experience a famous singer, to that of recorded music and radio.
She sang for Queen Victoria, tasted the high life in Edwardian London, the Empire’s last brilliant summer, and saw friends felled in the so-called “war to end all wars”.
Melba was the daughter of an immigrant. Her father, David Mitchell, was just 23 when he arrived in Melbourne from Scotland in 1852. Mitchell was a stonemason, just out of his apprenticeship. Ann Blainey writes of him: “Shrewd, determined and resourceful, he sensed that in this burgeoning city his building skills could make his fortune.”
He soon established himself in Richmond, a mile from the city, although he arrived in Australia with only a gold sovereign in his pocket. He went on to build the Royal Exhibition Building, at that time the largest building ever constructed in Australia.
Nellie was the first surviving child of Mitchell and Isabella Ann Dow, daughter of a fellow Scot. The baby, born on May 19, 1861, was named Helen, but from the start she was known as Nellie.
Although she showed a precocious musical talent, her father did his best to discourage her performing ambitions. She did, however, get a good education at Presbyterian Ladies College (PLC). With the exception of the study of Greek, PLC’s curriculum matched that of the best boys’ schools, unheard of in colonial Australia and rare in England and America. Melba credited PLC as forming the foundations of her musical tastes.
Melba studied singing under Pietro Cecchi, an Italian opera singer who taught the bel canto tradition. Bel canto is, literally translated, beautiful singing. From the early 17th century to the middle of the 19th century, composers wrote for bel canto singers, who were renowned for their pure voices and brilliant trills and scales. Bel canto was losing favour but Cecchi’s teaching formed the basis of her technique, a fact that Melba did not always readily acknowledge.
Melba gave more credit to the Paris school of Mathilde Marchesi, a German-born singing teacher who also taught young ladies how to move in the very highest reaches of European society – not only how to sing, but how to enter a room, to eat and dress, and how to keep their heads whatever the situation, all the attributes of the well-bred.
Marchesi also selected exotic names for her pupils, usually based on their origins, and thus “Melba” was born. By this time, Melba was married to “Kangaroo Charlie” Armstrong, an Anglo-Irish grazier whom she married in Mackay after a short courtship. She had a son, George; but the marriage collapsed due to the couple’s incompatability.
Times were tough; she often didn’t have the money to pay her rent. “It was only the burning desire to succeed and the absorbing interest in my work that kept me going,” Melba remembered.
Melba succeeded because she had good teachers, and, combining her natural talent and colonial charm with a Scot’s head for business, was prepared to work hard and make the most of her opportunities.
Melba reached her artistic peak at the time when the world was in the first great era of globalisation. The British Empire covered a quarter of the globe and international commerce was thriving. Melba moved easily between Australia, still a collection of colonies, and the centre of empire, as did others of the colonial elite.
America was industrialising and Melba tapped the great American hunger for high culture. One commentator observed: “Ordinary people craved enchantment and longed for a connection with the great world beyond the plains or mountains. Opera satisfied those yearnings.”
Melba appeared regularly at the world’s great opera houses, notably at the Paris Opera, the Metropolitan in New York and Covent Garden in London. She also conquered the citadel of European Opera, La Scala in Milan, and performed in cities great and small in Britain, America and Australia. She was the most famous Australian of her era.
What is Melba remembered for today? She made many farewells, but probably not more than other artists of the era. Her voice pioneered the use of recorded music and the radio. Her affair with the presumptive heir to the French throne may have scandalised polite Anglo-Saxons but made her a heroine to the Paris audiences. This was not unusual in the Prince of Wales’ circle, of which she was a part.
As for her repertoire, she was most adept at French and Italian operas, and never had the same success in Wagnerian roles. To the average listener, her surviving recordings sound thin and forced, due to the poor quality of recording equipment at the time. Bel canto did not emphasise dramatic acting and she remained a bel canto singer to the end.
As for her famous injunction to a fellow singer about to tour Australia, “Sing ’em muck”, it was a professional joke, not meant for public consumption.
Melba was a great patriot and her charity work earned her the highest imperial honours. In all, she was a daughter of Australia who never lost her love of her family and her country.
Ann Blainey has used her documents well and produced a fine biography that offers an insight into a fascinating world that has gone forever.