AUSTRALIA - GREAT AUSTRALIAN WOMEN
Nellie Melba (Helen Porter Mitchell), DBE, GBE (1856-1931)
The Voice of Australia
'Her brain made Melba's voice unique.'
Madame Marchiesi to Katharine Susannah Prichard, Paris, 1912
A century ago Melba was regarded as the greatest opera singer in the world, the first Australian to make a name for herself overseas as a singer at time when Australia was seen as a cultural desert.
Her name has become a legend. There are many Melbas, each one different, so attempting to create a portrait from eye-witness accounts is frustrating. As a legendary figure, people viewed Melba from contrasting viewpoints; some recounter her parsimony, others praised her outstanding generosity. Beverley Nichols wrote a laudatory biography that was paid for by Melba, but once he had left her employ he published unkind stories of an ageing dive obsessed with her own image. Melba's granddaughter, on the other hand, records Melba as one of the most unselfish grandmothers any child count wish for. Nellie Melba was fortunate in possessing all the elements that prima donna needs for success: a beautiful voice, a capacity for hard work, a commanding and charismatic presence, a strong constitution, a will of iron. All these combined to help her develop her talent and run her career with remarkable efficiency. Her portrait has appeared on the Australian $100 note, a fitting legacy for a woman who turned her golden voice into a fortune. She owned valuable property in London, Paris and Australia, a magnificent collection of jewels and a wardrobe of beautiful designer gowns.
Unlike many female opera singers, Nellie Melba won her fame without granting sexual favours to opera or theatre managers. She was no prude, but after her only marriage had failed she liked to be the one to choose her lovers, other than the other way round. Melba's huge fortune was amassed with the aid of homosexual financier Alfred de Rothschild, with whom she formed a judicious friendship. Rothschild, a great admirer of Melba, gave her good advice on how to invest her hard-earned money, which Melba followed with spectacular success. In return she never charged a fee when she sang at Rothschild's sumptuous dinner parties. How did an unknown Australian girl with a husband and a baby leave Melbourne in 1886 as an unknown singer and return sixteen years later as Madame Melba, the world's most famous prima donna? The answer lies in her talent, her strong personality and the good relations she fostered with the press.
From Melbourne mansion to a sugar plantation at Marian
'If you wish to understand me at all, you must understand that first and foremost I am an Australian,' Melba said revealingly in her autobiography, ghost-written by Nichols.'
'Nellie; was the name given to her by her younger brothers and sisters. She was christened Helen Porter Mitchell and was born in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond, the third child of Isabel (formerly Dow) and David Mitchell, both keen amateur musicians. Dark-haired, dimpled Nellie was the first of the Mitchells' ten children to survive the hazards of childhood in a period when the infant mortality rate was very high. A stubborn and determined child, she often defied her strict and equally determined father, whom she greatly resembled. In spite of all their arguments, Nellie would remain his favourite all his life. Educated at home by two elderly maiden aunts and given her first music lessons by her mother, Nellie's habit of whistling and humming around the house drover her father mad. Hoping to turn her into a 'young lady', her parents enrolled her as a day girl at Melbourne's Presbyterian Ladies College, where she received piano and singing lessons. This was th3 school described by Henry Handel Richardson in her novel The Getting of Wisdom. Neither Nellie nor Ethel Richardson enjoyed their schooldays, but they both received an excellent grounding in musical theory and piano.
Dame Nellie Melba (Helen Porter Mitchell)
Nellie Mitchell left school at eighteen. She was not expected to train for a career or find a job outside the home, but to lead a domesticated life until she made a 'good' marriage. Her father had trained as a master stonemason in Scotland before emigrating to Australia with only a few pounds in his pocket. Through hard work and good business acumen the construction business he founded flourished and he was able to buy a huge stone quarry at Cave Hill, near Lilydale, as well as a brick works, and undertake major construction work in Melbourne. He also owned a country property at Dalry, where he sometimes took young Nellie on a visit in a horse-drawn wagonette. It was from the shearers and fencers she met here that she learned to swear so fluently, something she would do all her life to the amazement of some of her fellow guests at parties.
Her father intended Nellie to sing in the drawing room after dinner, attract a suitable young man, marry him and bear his children. Strong-minded Nellie, however, had other ideas about her future. She had won praise for her singing at school and loved being the centre of attention. She obtained her father's permission to take private lessons with Pietro Cecci, an Italian singer and former member of Melbourne's Lyster Opera company. Cecci was very taken with Nellie and prepared to overlook her bouts of bad temper when she was thwarted. He encouraged her to believe that she had great talent and that some day her voice would enthrall the world. If Nellie's father had realised that his favourite daughter planned an operatic career he would have been horrified; in his opinion, based on his strict Scots upbringing, singers and actresses were 'a load of painted harlots and strumpets'. He would certainly not permit his daughter to sing on the stage. Even the great actress Sarah Bernhardt (later a close friend of Melba) had initially been a 'kept women', wither her living accommodation and her jewels paid for by a succession of powerful men in return for sexual favours.
When Nellie was nineteen her mother fell ill and was nursed at home by Nellie and her younger sisters, Annie and Belle. David Mitchell deeply loved his wife, who died just as Nellie turned twenty. The grief of the Mitchell family increased when Nellie's youngest brother, Vere Mitchell, died four months later. Their family home, Doonside, was plunged into mourning: the girls scarcely ever went out and Nellie's father, a loner by nature, became extremely depressed. As a means of escaping from a home with tragic memories into a brighter and sunnier environment, David Mitchell accepted a commission to build a sugar mill in the small settlement of Marian, almost twenty kilometres inland from the developing port of Mackay, on the central Queensland coast, where the sugar industry was booming. Huge sugar plantations were being developed using the labour of Pacific Islanders - this was the sorry era of 'blackbirding'. The younger Mitchell children were left at home to be looked after by two nurses and a housekeeper, while the two eldest girls, Nellie and Annie, accompanied their father and boarded a steamer for Mackay. Soon the high-spirited, attractive Mitchell girls with their smart city clothes were the talk of this small town. They were invited to all the best houses, usually owned by wealthy sugar planters, where Nellie was repeatedly asked to sing after dinner. One evening she was introduced to the Honourable Charles Nisbett Armstrong, a good-looking young English aristocrat three years older than herself. Following some wild teenage escapades, he had been sent away to jackeroo in Australia; he now held a more responsible position as plantation manager at nearby Marian.
'Kangaroo Charlie', as he was known, was tall and broad-shouldered, as blond as Melba was dark, with a fondness for wine, women and fast horses and a temper as volatile as Nellie's. The young girls of Mackay and Marian sighed over his good looks and their mothers invited him to supper parties, delighted at the prospect of a daughter marrying a younger son of a baronet. Charles's widowed mother, Lady Armstrong, was rumoured to own a stately home in Sussex. All her life Nellie would have a weakness for titles and for handsome, self-confident men. She was a sensual woman and there was an intense physical attraction between her and Kangaroo Charlie. For his part, Charles Armstrong admired Nellie's curvaceous figure and her sense of humour and appreciated her father's fortune. They flirted but, on her father's orders, Nellie was always chaperoned by her sister whenever they met. Charles realised that he would have to propose marriage, although they did not know each other at all well. He did so and was accepted.
Dame Nellie Melba
Like many men of his class, Charles Armstrong enjoyed the music of Gilbert and Sullivan, but cared nothing for grand opera. His true passion was reserved for sport and horses, he was a brilliant rider and an excellent shot. He was not a meek husband standing by the piano turning pages of music while his wife sung her way into history. David Mitchell, the man who had fulfilled the Australian dream by starting out with nothing and founding a fortune, could scarcely object to his future son-in-law's pedigree, although he was worried by the rumours of wild fights and debts that Charles had incurred in England before coming to Australia. But once Nellie had made up her mind nothing would stop her. She wanted Charlie Armstrong for his body and his aristocratic connections, and what Nellie wanted she got. The young couple married at St Ann's Presbyterian Church, Brisbane, on 22 December 1882. Nellie Mitchell, now the Honourable Mrs Charles Nisbett Armstrong, was twenty-one.
The newlyweds spent their three-month honeymoon in Melbourne at Doonside. In Melbourne Nellie resumed her singing lessons with Pietro Cecci, whose repeated assurances that she was certainly good enough to sing in the great opera houses of Europe unsettled her. Once the honeymoon was over the Armstrongs returned north by steamer, stopping off in Sydney where Nellie gave a couple of private recitals. She was hailed as 'the Australian nightingale', which unsettled her even more. In spite of the fact that Nellie was David Mitchell's favourite child, he did not help the young couple financially and feared their marriage would not last. The couple's return to far north Queensland, where they lived in the simple weatherboard cottage built for the plantation manager, was an anti-climax for Nellie. By now she was convinced that she could succeed as an opera singer ... if only she had the chance to do so. Covent Garden in London and the opera houses of Europe beckoned, but how could she get there? She had no money of her own and no way of earning any, and she soon discovered she was pregnant. Her husband had hoped for a submissive wife to run the home and bear his children; instead he found himself married to a frustrated singer singer with an iron will and a temper as strong as his own.
During the long wet season rain fell unceasingly, drumming on the tin roof of the cottage, ruining Nellie's piano and heightening the tension between husband and wife. Charles's salary was not large and he had no private income. There was little to do in Marian. Nellie had read scores of romantic novels and expected a great deal more from marriage than Charles Armstrong provided. She recorded dismal impressions of Marian during the wet season: 'My piano was mildewed; my clothes were damp, the furniture fell to pieces; spiders, ticks, and other obnoxious insects penetrated the house to say nothing of snakes, which had a habit of appearing under one's bed at the most inopportune moments." She bore a son, whom they named George. Much as she loved her baby, domesticity held few attractions for ambitious Nellie. By the time George could toddle and utter the word 'Mama', Nellie was scheming how she could leave north Queensland and return to Melbourne. She felt she must have some breathing space from her hot-tempered husband; in one of his rages the Honourable Charles Armstrong had thrown a clock at her head, but had missed. A pattern of domestic violence and abuse was being established. Nellie felt she must get away; perhaps hr marriage would improve if they had some distance between them, then as as soon as George was old enough she could fulfill her ambition to become a professional singer.
Nellie knew her father would not help her financially so she wrote to the faithful Cecci, telling him how unhappy she was. 'We are as poor as it is possible for anyone to be', she wrote, explaining that she could not practise because her piano was constantly out of tune due to the high humidity. She asked if it would be possible for Cecci to form a small opera company. If he could do so she would come south, go on tour with it and leaver her baby to be brought up by her sisters at Doonside. Alarmed by her letter, Cecci wired money for her fare to Melbourne. Although he knew that David Mitchell would never help his daughter to embrace a singing career, he was convinced that Nellie Armstrong had a voice that would enthrall the world. This was the encouragement Nellie needed. On 19 January 1884, at the height of yet another wet season, she sailed south with George to begin a concert career backed by Cecci. Although she was welcomed back by her father, who was delighted to see his first grandson, David Mitchell still disapproved of anything connected with the stage and remained adamant that he would not support Nellie's fledging career.
With her adoring younger sisters and the maids at Doonside to care for her small son, Nellie was able to work hard on her singing, practising from six in the morning onwards. In Melbourne she met John Lemmone, a flautist who would eventually become her accompanist, and she gave paid and unpaid concerts in Melbourne's town Hall to great applause. But this was not enough. Her ambition, reinforced by both Cecci and Lemmone, made her dream of performing at Covent Garden and the great opera houses of Europe seem a possibility. How was she to achieve this with no regular income and an infant to look after? Then, totally unexpectedly, her father, Melbourne's most successful builder and property developer, was offered the post of the State of Victoria's Commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London. Excited by the honour, he accepted and prepared to move to England with his family; he told Nellie that to preserve the conventions her husband must accompany them.
In March 1886, Nellie, Charles and two-year-old George sailed to London with her father and Annie and Belle. Nellie's marriage was on the rocks, but David Mitchell was determined that she and her husband should preserve the facade of respectability expected of someone in his position. Divorce was out of the question. During Queen Victoria's reign divorce was a major scandal; a divorced woman was about as socially acceptable as a leper, was presumed to be the guilty party and automatically lost custody of any children of the marriage. Going to London was worth any sacrifice to Nellie, who hoped Charles would find a job to keep him busy so that she could pursue her singing career. David Mitchell was confident that in a new environment, with different activities to occupy her mind, Nellie would stay in the marriage. To lessen her unhappiness with her 'difficult husband', her father held out the carrot that once they were settled in London she could take singing lessons with the best teachers. In England Nellie met her widowed mother-in-law, Lady Armstrong. Against all expectations, these two strong-minded women took an instant liking to one another. Doubtless Lady Armstrong realised that her hot-tempered son was not exactly an ideal husband; perhaps she hoped that Nellie had a strong enough character to make him toe the line. However, by this time Charles and Nellie were fighting so badly that it was impossible for them to continue to live together under one roof. He joined the militia as an officer and was sent to serve in Ireland. Outwardly at least their marriage still appeared viable.
Paris, Vienna, Leipzig, Rome, Turin and other European cities were where the best singers trained. All Mrs Charles Armstrong's attempts to be 'discovered' as a singer by the London press and by musical impresarios failed, although she was applauded at two small concerts. Her aristocratic connection provided no help and Cecci's name certainly did not impress London's musical establishment, nor did the fact that Nellie had been trained in faraway Melbourne, in the colonies. Nellie's sole success lay in her renderings of popular songs like "Home Sweet Home' at evening parties. All she could do was to remind her father about the promise he had made in Melbourne and pester him to allow her to study with Europe's most famous singing teacher, the great Madame Mathilde Marchiesi, in Paris. Eventually her father provided Nellie with a small annual income which would allow her to live inexpensively in Paris with her son for one year. Fortunately, Nellie had an excellent ear for languages and her French was reasonable. But would Madame Marchiesi agree t take her on as a pupil? Nellie was aware that Marchiesi accepted only a tiny fraction of the singers who begged her for tuition.
Nellie knew that the audition she was able to arrange with Madame Marchiesi was her big chance. It was fortunate that before leaving Melbourne she had obtained an enthusiastic letter of introduction from a former pupil of Marchiesi, Madame Wiedermann-Pinschof, otherwise Marchiesi would never have agreed to see her. When the day arrived she was, quite naturally, extremely nervous. At first Madame Marchiesi seemed bored by the idea of auditioning another hopeful colonial. Nellie had chosen to sing the aria 'Sempre libera' from La Traviata. At one point Marchiesi interrupted, telling Nellie not to screech the top notes but to sing them piano, but said nothing more, listening intently until the aria ended. Then, without a word of praise, she hurried out of the room. Years later, Nellie recounted that Madame Marchiesi had gone off in great excitement to tell her husband, the Marques Salvaatore Marchiesi Castrione: "Salvatore, I have found a star!'
Nervously Nellie waited. When Madame Marchiesi returned she took Nellie by the arm and led her into a room away from other girls waiting to audition. She sat her down on a sofa beside her and, in what Nellie would always describe as 'the turning point in my life', told her: 'Madame Armstrong, if you are serious and will study with me for a year, I shall make something extra-ordinary of you.' Nellie would never forget the way Marchiesi accented the word 'extraordinary'. At that moment she would have died if anyone had tried to stop her studying with Marchiesi. Fame seemed within her grasp. Marchiesi was an excellent teacher and showed Nellie how to overcome her faults. Nellie worked very hard; as a result, her low scale 'rippled from low C to top C with never a change in quality'. Marchiesi told Nellie she was lucky to have been born with an almost perfect larynx and vocal cords. It wasn't long before she became Nellie's confidante and blend of best friend and mother substitute as well as her teacher. When Nellie wrote to her she would address her as 'Dearest Mother'. Unfortunately, through no fault of her own, Nellie alienated Marchiesi's only daughter, Blanche, an aspiring singer of average ability, who envied the time and effort her mother lavished on Nellie.
At this point, having been spurned in London as an unknown colonial and realising that no one in European circles cared a fig about Cecci, Nellie now totally disowned his contributions to her success. Marchiesi played a vital part in this discreditable affair: she wanted the glory of having discovered Melba for herself. Accordingly she claimed Nellie had to unlearn everything she had been taught before and that she, the great Marchiesi, was the sole influence on her voice. Nellie knew very well that Marchiesi had the power to establish her as a great singer, which Cecci, far away in Melbourne, could never do. So she went along with Marchiesi's pretence. To cope with her guilt over disowning Cecci's professional influence on what she and Marchiesi called 'the voice', Nellie invented a fictitious story: she said that before she left Melbourne, Cecci had demanded the return of the money he sent to enable her to leave Mackay. She told Marchiesi she would never to speak to Cecci again or acknowledge him as her teacher. (In the future, whenever she related this story, she would add for good measure that Cecci died of apoplexy when he heard of her success.)
It is difficult to reconcile Nellie's tale about Cecci demanding the return of his money with the fact that in 1886 she wrote a friendly letter to him from London informing him of her success in two concerts, asking him to write back to her care of Lady Armstrong, in Sussex. Did Cecci ever imagine that Nellie would betray his years of work and his influence on her technique in order to succeed? Opinions differ sharply on Nellie's probity in this matter. Madame Marchiesi described the future diva as 'the pupil of my dreams' and worked Nellie long and hard in her quest to create a perfect singer. Nellie grew fonder and fonder of her teacher, describing her as 'more than a mother to me', and repeating how she was eternally grateful to her. In 1912 Marchiesi would tell the Australian author Katharine Susannah Prichard, who was interviewing her for an article in the Melbourne Herald, that 'It was her brain that made Melba's voice.' the phrase impressed Prichard as giving readers the key to Melba's success. Marchiesi was convinced that Melba's high intelligence helped her to control her voice better than any other singer of her era and to develop what became her speciality, her famous 'nightingale trill', which required enormous control.
As yet Nellie's dreams of fame and fortune were only dreams. As a penniless student living in Paris on money provided by her father and having to support her son, she had no option but to resist the temptations of this elegant city and exist within her modest means. With little George she lived in an inexpensive family pension within walking distance of Marchiesi's home. At this period in her life, Nellie (whose name would become a byword for conspicuous consumption as she tried to erase memories of her former poverty) walked everywhere rather than taking hansom cabs. She saved up her monthly allowance to buy the cheapest seats at the opera and always wore the same old blue serge dress to her singing lessons much to Madame Marchiesi's despair: she wanted Nellie to dazzle all those who met her. By this time Charles Armstrong had found strict military discipline not to his taste and was trying to make a success of farming the family estates in Sussex. On the occasions when he came to Paris to visit his wife and son (for whom he felt great affection), each visit would end in a violent quarrel. Charles was as quick-tempered as Nellie was stubborn. It became obvious they could never live together, whether Nellie was successful as a singer or not. What were they to do? Divorce was very expensive and the scandal would severely undermine her father's official position in London, so the unhappy marriage continued and Nellie did not inquire too closely how Charles spent his spare time in London.
Fame and Fortune
Under Marchiesi's guidance, Nellie's debut took place at the Theatre de la Monnaie, Brussels, in 1887, in the emotive role of Gilda, Rigoletto's daughter, in Verdi's opera of that name. She was twenty-six. Before she appeared in Brussels, Marchiesi advised her to choose a stage name that was memorable and sounded European; both 'Armstrong' and 'Mitchell' were far too Anglo-Saxon to impress European opera lovers. Between them they evolved a new name - henceforth Nellie Armstrong would sing under the name of Melba, based on her birthplace, Melbourne. The stage name was short, memorable and Italianate. In addition, Nellie hoped it would make Australians proud of her. Melba's Brussels debut in Rigoletto was a triumph. In Verdi's great quartet 'Bella figlia dell'amore', her remarkable voice with its unique trill was heard to its best advantage. In her interview with Prichard, Marchiesi told the young Australian writer: 'The very next day and for days afterwards there was nothing but a chorus of praise everywhere, the entire press of Brussels declaring the young artiste to be a star of the first magnitude.
International success seemed within Melba's grasp. She remained deeply grateful to Marchiesi for having given her the opportunity she craved, and she would continue to work on new roles with her teacher for many years. Now she yearned for success in London, knowing that news of it would appear in all the Australian papers; however, Melba found it impossible at this juncture to repeat her Brussels triumph in London. In hindsight it seems incredible, but her Covent Garden debut in the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor was not a success with London audiences. Melba had been invited to sing at Covent Garden because Lady de Grey (later the Countess of Ripon), a member of Covent Garden's Board of Trustees, had heard Melba sing in Brussels. The newspaper critics did not bother to attend, viewing her as someone of no importance since Covent Garden had not issued any press notices about her. Covent Garden's autocratic manager, "Augustus Harris, was reluctant to engage Melba, whom he believed was a 'colonial' singer whose success in Brussels was a mere flash in the pan impressing a crowd of excitable foreigners, which was why Harris did not give Melba any advance publicity. However, the Prince and Princess of Wales loyally supported their close friend Lady de Grey and attended Melba's first night. Although like Lady de Grey they admired Melba's silvery voice, the house was half-full and there were only two curtain calls. It seemed as though Nellie's career in London was over as soon as it had begun.
After that disappointing first night Nellie, deeply upset, complained to Lady de Grey and to the Covent Garden management that the conductor disliked her and that Covent Garden's orchestra had 'drowned' her voice. The management refused to give her a more 'sympathetic' conductor or to reprimand the one they had engaged. Lady de Grey also protested at the conductor's treatment of Madame Melba. Melba herself claimed she could not continue to work with him. Tempers flared, as they frequently do in the volatile world of opera. The conductor in his turn refused to work with Melba and the management took his side. By way of compensation Melba was offered a humiliatingly small role in Verdi's A masked Ball, while a more famous singer was offered the lead. Nellie was furious. She packed her bags and returned to Brussels, having learned a bitter lesson. The high-handed way in which she considered Covent garden's manager had dealt with her would significantly affect her future behaviour towards opera managers and contracts; from then onwards she was determined to work only with conductors she liked and with publicity specified in her contract.
By fair means or foul, by manipulating contracts to her advantage, she was able to keep potential (and younger) female rivals off the stage. Her behaviour was often devious, but doubtless Marchiesi advised her that this was how other divas kept their positions at the top. Nellie, as intelligent as the best of them and with a will of iron, was determined to employ their strategies. She was her own manager-cum-publicist and dictated the most advantageous terms possible for all her contracts, to ensure that she was always seen on stage to her best advantage. She had a huge success when she was invited to sing the role of Ophelia in Hamlet at the Paris Opera. The critic of Le Figaro described Melba as a great new discovery with 'a marvellous soprano voice, equal, pure, brilliant and mellow'. He went on to say that Madame Melba's personal appearance was 'an advantage to her', describing her as 'tall and slender with an expressive face'.
What is interesting is that Melba was far from tall. One of her strengths lay in obtaining from opera companies clever costume designers and hairdressers who were able to create the illusion that she was tall and slim. Melba's best features were her large, velvety brown eyes which were indeed expressive; but in fact her personal appearance was not the 'advantage to her' that the music critic described. Off-state she was short in stature, so she compensat3d by wearing the highest of heels. She had a very prominent nose and a sallow complexion, which she skillfully disguised with make-up. Nor was she a great actress like her friend Sarah Bernhardt. Melba was what the French call jolie-laid: her face was interesting and expressive rather than beautiful, and she possessed the special gift of making her audience believe she was beautiful. In Paris Melba followed her success as Ophelia by again playing the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor, performing brilliantly in the scene where Lucia goes mad. To London audiences she had been a 'mere colonial'; to the French she was an exciting new star from exotic, remote Australia. Sarah Bernhardt described Melba's voice as 'pure crystal', while a critic as enthralled as Cecci and Marchiesi had been described it as 'hovering in the auditorium like a beam of light'. Overnight Madame Melba became the toast of Paris.
Meanwhile Nellie's friend Lady de Grey, convinced that Melba had been treated very badly by the management of Covent Garden, was determined to get her back there. It took time but, as a result of all Lady de Grey's lobbying and committee work, in 1889 Melba returned to star at Covent Garden, where she would continue to create operatic history for the next forty years. Her triumphant return to London coincided with a long period of national peace and prosperity and a golden period of opera at Covent Garden. With the gloss of her Paris triumph behind her and plenty of advance publicity, this time Melba was a huge success. Covent Garden audiences loved her and could not see enough of her. Success followed success. Soon the management were paying Nellie Armstrong from 'down under', The women they had scorned, the highest fees of any singer in the world, male or female. Nellie had a memory like an elephant - she never forgot a slight or an insult. As her own manager she dictated her own terms and she insisted that Covent Garden, although very short of space, should provide her with a private dressing-room for her sole use, which was to remain locked in her absence. Realising they had a star on their hands and fearful of losing her, the management bowed to her demands. Nellie kept that dressing-room for her exclusive use for the rest of her singing career.
The golden years
Success at Covent Garden changed everything. Nellie Armstrong and her inexpensive blue serge dresses and scuffed down-at-heel shoes had vanished, replaced by Melba, the grandest of divas, who wore Paris gowns designed by worth and pearls the size of a pigeon's egg. She bought a diamond tiara, which she wore at first nights of operas in which she was not starring. She lived surrounded by servants and hot house flowers, her every whim catered for. She was the guest London society hostesses most wanted to attend their parties.
For the next fourteen years, during her annual season at Covent Garden, Melba rented a luxurious suite at the Savoy Hotel overlooking the Thames. She spent so much money at the Savoy that eventually she found it cheaper to buy a house in Mayfair at 30 Great Cumberland Place, which she remodelled to look like a mini-Versailles complete with Louis XIV gilded furniture and mirrors. She spent a fortune on the house, importing plasterers, cabinet-makers and designers from France because she believed British workmen were incapable of carrying out the work. The end result was slightly over the top, to put it mildly, but Nellie was happy. She was somebody now and everyone who visited her would know it. She was clever enough to keep in with the younger, racy members of the Prince of Wales's set as well as the more formal and subdued court of the widowed queen Victoria, for whom she sang on several occasions at Windsor Castle. Nellie loved royal performances and being on first-name terms with aristocrats. A duchess once asked Nellie if she would rather be a duchess or Melba. 'There are lots of duchesses,' Nellie replied, 'but only one Melba.'
She appeared at every London opera season (with the exception of 1909-12) until World War I, when Covent Garden closed its doors for the duration. She never forgot that it was Lady de Grey who had been responsible for her return to London; Melba's loyalty to old friends was one of her most endearing qualities. By now John Lemmone had become her accompanist, and she looked after him financially in his old age. She was a true friend to those she trusted, an implacable enemy to her rivals. Like her father Melba liked money; she was attracted to men who had an abundance of it, as well as the power that money brings. Her friendship with the Prince of Wales and his circle gave Melba huge social clout. The Prince was a complex man who had endured an isolated, unhappy childhood. Once he had his own household he devoted his time to the pursuit of pleasure and sex but bowed to tradition and entered into an arranged marriage with the beautiful and dutiful Princess Alexandra of Schleswig-Holstein-Glucksberg. He was fond of his wife, but she bored him witless and he was notoriously unfaithful to her.
Melba walked a delicate tightrope; she was friends with Princess Alexandra and the Prince's many mistresses, who included Sarah Bernhardt, the Princesse de Sagan, the duchess Caraciolo, Daisy Brooke, the Countess of Warwick, Lillie Langtry and Alice Keppel (great-grandmother of Camilla Parker Bowles). By the time Melba met the Prince of Wales he was enormously fat, the result of the huge meals he devoured. He was experiencing difficulties in consummating his affaires; each time he selected a new woman for his bed, he always hoped that his bouts of impotence would be cured. It was common knowledge among the Prince's circle that in order to hoist his heavy body in position for lovemaking, he had to use a curious apparatus which featured a cradle and a pair of stirrups. Among those who knew him well, the 'in joke' was that this remarkable piece of equipment was based on one employed for mating the Prince's stallions to his mares in the royal stables at Sandringham. Extra-marital sex was a given in the Prince's circle: Melba, who had a number of lovers, fitted in very well, although she and the Prince never became involved. The Prince had little time for his mother's stuffy court at Windsor; his own set was very nouveau riche and its members were often criticised for their vulgarity. The fact that Melba swore like a trooper when she was relaxed and her taste in somewhat gaudy, to put it mildly, interior decoration presented no problems for the Prince and his circle. He had a very limited appreciation of opera and no ear for classical music. What satisfied His Royal Highness was knowing that he had the best performers at his parties. And Melba was the best. On several occasions the Prince carried on a spirited conversation while Melba was singing. She was deeply offended but forgave him ... after all, he was the Prince of Wales.
This was the era known as the belle epoque, a period of extraordinary opulence and prosperity when the rich were not burdened with income tax. As a result money flowed freely. It was considered normal for wealthy men to send a diva jewels or huge bouquets of flowers before important first nights. Melba received both in abundance. She once observed: 'If I had only the money that has been spent in flowers for me and nothing else, I should still be a rich woman.
Everything Melba did was news. Leading chefs in London and Paris named their latest creations Peche Melba and Melba toast. Picture postcards (which are today valuable and collectable) portrayed her portraits and photographs in favourite roles. Great composers like Toscanini, Puccini and Verdi were her friends and admirers. In an era when most women were denied the luxury of their own bank account or were unable to obtain a mortgage or a bank loan because (shades of Hegel) it was thought their little brains could not handle finance, Melba, by her own efforts, became a millionaire (the equivalent of a billionaire today). Her financial acumen, inherited from her parsimonious but astute father, and her days of relative poverty in Paris meant that she was well aware of the value of every dollar she earned and of the pulling power of her voice.
If the mood took her she could be extremely generous, donating large sums to charities or former colleagues in need. To supply her own needs, she employed a retinue of maids, cooks, secretaries and her own hairdresser. All her clothes, including her silk nightgowns, were made by leading designers. She travelled like a queen in her personal train carriage, furnished with monogrammed silk sheets, silken cushions and silver candelabra, its walls hung with several of her portraits and favourite paintings. She could be as autocratic as any duchess, dominating the conversation and ignoring other women at the dinner table, but warm and affectionate to old friends. Melba was the grandest of divas in the days when opera singers were accorded the adulation now reserved for pop and film stars, possessing a very special charisma. After she performed in St Petersburg the audience cheered themselves hoarse and students took the horses from her carriage and placed themselves between the shafts, pulling it back to her hotel in triumph. The Tsar himself, enraptured by the special quality of Melba's voice, gave her an exquisite diamond and pearl bracelet.
In Vienna, a city dedicated to music and opera, Melba's appearance at the Hofoper was yet another triumph. The emperor Franz Joseph, widowed ruler of the vast Austro-Hungarian empire, scarcely ever went out after the death of his wife, the beautiful empress Elizabeth, who had been assassinated by a madman. Nellie was summoned to Schonbrunn, the emperor's summer palace, and led through mirrored anterooms and immense salons filled with rare porcelain. Finally she arrived at an audience chamber where she was presented to the emperor, whom she described as 'a dignified, sad, old man in a black coat standing with his hands behind his back'. He presented her with a jewel-encrusted medal and told her that until the previous night head not visited a theatre for over year. 'Not once, not since the empress was assassinated,' he said. He smiled sadly and continued: 'Madame Melba, the beauty of your voice called me from my enforced retirement. It was a great effort to attend the opera but I am glad that I did so.' She felt deeply sorry for him as he pinned the medal on her, so moved she could not reply. Her eyes filled with tears. She was intelligent enough to realise that the ageing Emperor was totally isolated from most people by the pomp and majesty of his position.
Her inter5views in Berlin with the German Kaiser was not so pleasant. Appearing as Marguerite in Faust, she was summoned to the Imperial Box at the Opera House but told she must not bring anything perfumed with her, as the Kaiser was allergic to perfume. He spoke to Melba in almost perfect English, saying how he had enjoyed her performance, but he was very critical about the tempo at which she had sung 'The Jewel Song'. Melba was no great admirer of the Germans. She thanked the Kaiser but said she had sung the song 'according to the instructions of Gounod, its composer, who had been very pleased indeed by her rendering of his aria'. She smiled sweetly as she saw the Kaiser's moustache bristle with suppressed rage and added: 'And furthermore, I would not dream of criticising His Imperial Highness's government.'
Melba had a quick wit, loved being the centre of attention and was adored by many, but it would be wrong to claim that everyone loved her. Her enemies called her ruthless, autocratic, conniving. Perhaps she was, but so were most of her rivals, and to beat them she had long ago decided to employ their techniques. Like most prima donnas Melba knew she must be constantly on the watch for the stab in the back, as well as for younger artistes who might supplant her as she grew older. She made sure that a clause was written into all her contracts stating that she must approve of any other female star contracted to perform. Madame Melba became famous (or infamous) for doing everything in her power to rid herself of potential rivals. She had absolutely no intention of abdicating. She was a clever self-publicist, cultivating 'friendly' journalists who wrote favourable stories about her. She was always ready to provide journalists with photo opportunities, and to dream up new angles for stories. She never employed a press agent, preferring to handle this side of her career herself. On a cleverly orchestrated visit to the Taj Mahal to pose for publicity pictures Melba burst into song, enchanting the waiting photographers.
Madame Melba (by now separated from her husband) was a wealthy and desirable women. Rich and highly eligible men sent flowers and jewels and invited her to dine with them after her performances. Sometimes she accepted, mostly she did not, preferring to be surrounded by those she knew already. She lived in a world where lovers (after marriage) were tolerated as long as there was no scandal. Divorce was legal but scandalous. Melba moved in a fast set and acted as they did but kept quiet about it. Still nominally married, she handled her brief affaires with discretion. She liked aristocrats and had a fondness for young writers, musicians and painters. Artist Rupert Bunny, handsome son of a Melbourne judge, is reputed to have been one of her lovers and painted one hugely flattering and youthful portrait of her. But hers was not a life dedicated to love; it was a life dedicated to opera. Men came a long way down Melba's list. The unwritten code of London and Parisian society was that it did not matter what two adults did together 'so long as they did not do it in the street and frighten the horses'. Country house parties in stately homes consisted of a great deal of bed-hopping, the chief bed-hopper being the Prince of Wales; by the time he finally acceded to the throne in 1901 he was known as 'Edward the Caresser'. The Prince and Princess of Wales (later Edward VII and Queen Alexandra) always presented a united front to the world.
Only once in her life did Melba lose her head over a man, exposing herself to an international scandal which nearly destroyed her career. In 1890 at the age of thirty-one, just as she was about to return to Covent Garden for the second time, she met bearded, handsome Louis-Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans, heir to the Pretender to the throne of France, who was engaged to a European aristocrat. He was blond, Melba was dark and sultry. He was ten years younger than she was and more handsome than any duke or king in grand opera: a real-life Lohengrin with a touch of dumas's chevalier D'Artagnan. It was instant attraction for both of them, and the duke did not think again about his arranged marriage. Their romance blossomed in Paris in spring, and continued when the duke and the diva went to Vienna together. They rode through the Vienna Woods and waltzed to the music of Strauss in the Volksgarten. The Viennese, used to glamorous romances, shrugged their shoulders; Austrian archdukes were always having romances with ballerinas or singers. However, when Melba and her royal duke shared a box at the Vienna State Opera, this caused some gossip in aristocratic circles. Madame Marchiesi, to whom Melba still wrote, was her confidante in this affaire. Perhaps Melba had forgotten that Marchiesi's daughter Blanche, Melba's implacable enemy, was now married and living in Vienna. After Melba and the duke were seen together at the Opera, Blanche contacted a journalist intent on writing a story about Melba and the duke and they had a long talk. The journalist duly 'broke' the story about Melba's relationship with a member of the French royal family in the Wiener Taggblat, Vienna's daily 'populist' newspaper. The resulting scandal made headlines around the world.
'Everyone who has known fame has also known the agonies which fame brings', Nellie wrote with deep feeling after the news of this affaire destroyed her hollow marriage and almost wrecked her career. Suddenly she found herself in the real-life role of Violetta from La Traviata - she was the woman who in reality lost the man she loved because his family objected to her. Of course Melba was not a penniless courtesan like Violetta, but she was married and on the stage. Even wee she divorced she could not marry a royal duke, especially one who was a Catholic and already engaged. The Orleans family could not countenance such an alliance. Melba was making headlines, but they were not the sort of headlines she enjoyed. Local and foreign journalists followed the couple around and produced stories with such titles as 'The scandal of the diva and the duke'.
Far away in Texas, Charles Armstrong learned about his wife's lover from a newspaper. As the injured party her estranged husband announced he would sue for divorce, naming the duke as co-respondent. Melba knew that a divorce would cause great scandal and that should this happen she would be viewed as a scarlet women, a social outcast, an Australian Anna Karenina, the woman who had broken the unwritten code: 'You may commit adultery but you shall not be found out.'
She returned to London to find journalists besieging her home. She fled to Paris to seek comfort from Madame Marchiesi, who told Melba in no uncertain terms that she must negotiate with her husband and, in public at least, renounce her friendship with the duke. Marchiesi also remarked that there were many attractive men in the world but only one career as a diva. In Britain, Queen Victoria still had the last word. Melba would be ruined if she was cited in a sensational divorce; even the Prince of Wales and his fast-living set would drop her like a hot potato. At the thought of being banned from Covent Garden Melba is reputed to have burst into tears, saying that if she could not marry the duke she would never marry anyone. At this point the duke's engagement was broken off, his future in-laws outraged by the scandal. The French royal family was appalled - it was one thing to have a prima donna as a mistress, but quite another to have their family name dragged through a divorce court. Possibly some French diplomatic pressure was brought to bear on Charles to drop his petition for divorce. (At that time the concept of no-fault divorce did not exist; Melba would have been declared the guilty party, liable to pay her husband damages and lose custody of her child.) Marchiesi had already pointed out that if she divorced, both her popularity and her income would suffer badly. Lawyers argued at great length and for a great deal of money. They discussed terms for a compromise whereby the duke's name would be dropped from Charles Armstrong's divorce petition on condition that he was given custody of his son and maintenance for the child. Horrified by the prospect that Lady de Grey and other aristocratic patrons would be alienated by the scandal and fearful for her career, Melba agreed.
She sent young George to boarding school in England, but Charles removed him from his school without her consent and took his son to Texas, where he was attempting rather unsuccessfully to run a ranch. In 1901, Charles divorced his wife quietly from Texas; news of the divorce was not featured in the newspapers. Charles taught George to be as good a horseman as he was, but apart from this the boy's education was neglected and he ran wild. Melba continued to see the duke from time to time during the next few years, until in November 1896 he made a grand but ultimately tragic marriage to the Archduchess Maria Dorothea of Austria. Needless to say, Melba was not invited to sing at the wedding. The Archduchess's subsequent infertility was rumoured to be a result of inherited syphilis contracted from her father. Eventually the unhappy couple separated. The duke consoled himself with other beautiful women and took up big game hunting in Africa. He had been the only man who was really important to Nellie, apart from her father. After he separated from his wife the Duke of Orleans was put in charge of an exploratory expedition to Greenland for several years. When he returned to London he visited Melba. She took good care that no word of their meetings ever got into the press and is believed to have burned all their correspondence.
Although she had other lovers, including an aspiring Australian writer called Haddon Chambers, the Argentine composer Herman Bemberg and (supposedly) Australia's Rupert bunny, none of them could ever replace the duke in her affections. After this, Melba rarely appeared in public with her lovers and made certain that the press never knew about her brief liaisons. Melba never seems to have made the slightest attempt to see her son George, but possibly she had had to sign a clause to that effect as part of her secret agreement with Charles. She was not exactly a conventional mother; in the custom of the time George had been brought up by various nannies and housekeepers. Deep in her heart, however, she adored her only son and was devastated by his absence. She would not see George again until he was grown up. She felt herself alone as she approached mid-life and filled the void by concentrating even harder on her career.
The year after her divorce, Melba returned to Australia after a long absence to undertake a hugely successful concert tour. Once again, scandal followed her. She was supposed to have advised another diva named Clara butt that on Clara's forthcoming tour of Australia she should 'Sing 'em muck, that's all they understand.' Melba believed a dignified silence was the best response to what she saw as a story deliberately concocted by a spiteful enemy to do her harm. 'They say, what do they say? Let them say', she wrote to a friend. More scandal followed. Ezra Norton, the vitriolic and alcoholic editor of Truth, published a letter accusing Melba (who was always generous to those who worked for her) of underpaying her employees. He also accused her of alcoholism, which was totally unjust: to guard her precious voice she drank only wine and the finest champagne. Those who knew her well assert Melba never drank more than a couple of glasses with a meal, her voice being the possession she held most dear. Eager to see her father, who was now seventy-four, Melba returned once again to Australia in 1902, to a country elated by the excitement of Federation. She left Vancouver aboard the steamship Miowera and was due to berth in Brisbane on 14 September, but the ship's ancient engines failed three times on the voyage and Melba had no way of informing the organisers of her tour of the delay. Red carpets, flowers and speeches 'Melba' train in which, with some of her brothers and sisters, it was planned she should pass through country railway stations crowded with cheering people, all longing for a glimpse of Australia's most famous daughter.
At Albury she was to meet her father for the first time in years, and she was longing to see him. However, when the train steamed into the station she was met by a doctor who told her that her father had suffered a stroke after worrying she had been shipwrecked because of her late arrival. Melba was distraught. She was taken to a house near the station, where her father was lying in bed. Overcome by emotion she knelt down and kissed his hand. Nothing in the world seemed to matter except her father. She told him she would cancel her tour of honour and her appearances, stay at Albury and nurse him until he was better. David Mitchell, a tough Scotsman who believed in duty and hard work, shook his head. Unable to speak aloud, he mouthed the words: 'Nellie, you must go on. You can't disappoint your public. The train had been halted for over an hour and the crowd was growing restive. Nellie thought of cancelling her whole tour but realised that was impossible. All the railway stations along the route had been specially decorated in her honour, and spectators were lining the route to see her. So like the trooper she was she followed her father's wishes and continued on to Melbourne, albeit with a heavy heart.
the city of Melbourne had proclaimed a public holiday in honour of Melba, its most famous daughter. The Melbourne Argus ran a feature calling her 'Our greatest Australian', the only woman to be so honoured in a country besotted with sportsmen. As though in a dream she drove through streets hung with bright flags and bunting. Bands played; all trams had stopped. There were speeches, flowers, more speeches, more flowers ... Melba's iron control took over and she did not show her agony but presented a calm exterior. The day that should have been her greatest triumph, the return to her home town, had turned to dust and ashes in her mouth. She felt as though she was sleepwalking, part of a nightmare. Finally, alone in her hotel suite, she burst into tears at the memory of her bedridden father in Albury, so near and yet so far away.
That night she was to sing at a special Melba Gala in the Town Hall. She would have preferred to cancel it, but her father had said she must not let her public down. She carried out his wishes. Pale and resolute, wearing a long white satin dress embroidered with jewels and a rope of baroque pearls, Melba made her appearance to wild applause. There were repeated requests for encores, more applause, still encores. David Mitchell recovered sufficiently to return to Melbourne and was able to attend her second concert. He sat in the front row, frail but proud, as his daughter announced to roars of applause that she would sing for him his favourite song, 'Comin' Through the Rye'.
After the concert was over her father came backstage in a wheelchair and they talked for hours. What impressed him most was Nellie's account of how much money she had earned from her singing. She told him with justifiable pride that she had earned double that sum from investing her money wisely in property and stocks and shares.
'That's ma guid wee lassie,' her father replied proudly.
On Melba's return to London, she continued to perform for the entire summer season at Covent Garden and at several European opera houses. She was not starting to earn huge sums from her recordings, which in those pioneering days of recorded sound did not do justice to her remarkable voice.
That celebrated Melba trill
Melba employed Beverley Nichols, a young homosexual writer, to act as her secretary and ghost write her memoirs. After Melba dispensed with Nichols's services he wrote Evensong, a waspish and sardonic novel about an ageing diva who intrigues and struggles to keep her place at the top, which appeared the year after Melba's death and outraged many Australians. Nichols had dipped his pen in vitriol to describe Melba's truly awful' taste in interior decoration and millinery. He was of course familiar with her London house, and told the world how she decorated gilded picture frames with satin bows and furnished her salon with overstuffed divans upholstered in shiny gold satin and gilded French furniture, some of which was reputed to be fake.
Later, under the tuition of an aristocrat-turned-interior-designer, the Marquis Boni de Castellane (described by Beverley Nichols as 'a tiny pomaded creature like a scented meringue') Melba got rid of most of her ornate furniture and overstuffed sofas and replaced them with simple but elegant mahogany chairs and tables from the workshop of the great English cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale. The Marquis de Castellane also managed to persuade Melba, now in her fifties, to dye her jet black hair a softer shade of brown, which was far kinder to her complexion. Nichols criticised Melba's increasing girth in middle age and her gigantic picture hats that he claimed made her resemble a mushroom. (Rather sadly, she believed huge hats made her look slimmer.) One thing Nichols could not do, however, was to find fault with her voice, which all those lucky enough to hear insisted was of incomparable beauty.
Unfortunately, the 100 different recordings of arias which Melba allowed to be released out of the 150 or so she actually made are ancient bakelite ones, designed to be played at 75 rpm. Listening to these records crackle and hiss, it is impossible to gain a true impression of what Melba really sounded like. Her voice disappoints, often sounding tinny and lifeless, and it makes it hard to imagine how, in her lifetime, critics wept for joy or went into ecstasies, praising that 'silvery voice, pure as that of a choirboy but more powerful' and her 'remarkable ability to trill like a nightingale'. It was her talent for ornamentation, to use a musical term, combined with her beautiful tone and perfect technique that made her internationally famous. It is very said that we cannot hear her as she sounded in real life.
Beverley Nichols also wrote a first-hand account of the 'filming' of Melba's voice. Nature had given her an almost perfect larynx and vocal chords; her range was three full octaves. Professor A.M. Low was now in the news as the inventor of the world's first audiometer, with which he recorded sound on film. Nichols persuaded Melba to allow the professor to 'film' her voice, telling her that she would be the first singer to be recorded in this way and undoubtedly the British Museum would like a copy of 'her' film. He pointed out that Melba's younger rivals, Patti and Tettrazini, had not got anything of theirs in the hallowed halls of the British Museum. Professor Low duly arrived at Melba's house with his audiometer. He was an extremely handsome man, quite young, with a shock of black hair and sensitive features. Initially Melba, who always liked to surround herself with handsome young men, was charm personified.
'What shall I sing, professor?' she asked him with a smile. 'Where should I stand?'
She had no idea that the professor was filming the sound of her voice; she was under the impression that he was making a moving picture of her as well. She preened a little in front of the mirror, then asked coquettishly whether the professor liked her dress, or would something simpler be better for 'her' public?
Keeping a straight face with difficulty, Professor Low finally managed to convince her that this was not an audition for one of Hollywood's new silent movies but a scientific experiment he was carrying out. Melba's face fell.
So she did. and the trill was wonderful. Their session over, the professor packed up his machine and departed. Over the next few days he 'filmed' the voices of other leading sopranos. Then he came back to the house with a roll of film on which Melba's voice showed up as a series of peaks and troughs, which bore some resemblance to the peaks and troughs on an electocardiogram machine. His scientific rendering of her trill had produced on film twenty feet of undulations between perfectly parallel lines. Melba was famous for the incredible delicacy and precision of her trills, which did not flutter or wobble or wander from the notes like those of other sopranos Professor Low had filmed.
He commented that Madame Melba's results were truly astonishing. Her top A flat was far richer and more complex in design and any of the other singers, whose trills had reproduced on film in a far more random pattern. Melba's trill was outstanding in its regularity, so uniform in outline that it might have been drawn by a geometrician. Melba was impressed. Ever conscious of favourable publicity, she asked the professor if he would let the Daily Mail publish an article about his machine. What she wanted was for her magnificent trill to be featured across three column s of the paper, accompanied by the inferior trills of her rivals.
'That'll show 'em', she said with relish.
Professor Low refused, fearing that publication in a newspaper could lead to libel actions against him ... which is why Melba's perfect trills were never published.
Melba in Manhattan takes on the Metropolitan
Between 1883 and 1910 Melba appeared with the Chicago Opera and sang at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, where she had a huge following. Then she found herself being wooed by the American impresario Oscar Hammerstein, who wanted her to sing for him at his Manhattan Opera House rather than at the Metropolitan. Melba did not care for Hammerstein's way of doing business and held out for a long time, on each subsequent occasion demanding larger and larger fees. Hammerstein refused to take no for an answer. He would appear in her dressing-room after a performance or at her home, imploring her to sing for him. On one occasion he carpeted the floor with thousand franc notes while she was out, but still did not succeed. Each time he appeared Melba, well aware of the value of her voice and the Melba legend, increased he demands.
Finally, after years spent pursuing Melba, Hammerstein capitulated and asked her if she would name her terms. She did. He agreed, with the result that Melba was contracted to sing at his new opera house, something which mortally offended the management of the Metropolitan. However, following her disastrous attempt to sing Brunnhilde in Siegfried at the Met in 1896, it was not exactly her favourite opera house. Melba arrived in New York before her first performance at the Manhattan Opera House only to find that for all his bluff, Hammerstein was a worried man. Would his gamble pay off? Would Melba establish his Manhattan Opera House once and for all, or would they both look ridiculous for daring to take on the power of the Met? for the first time in many years Madame Melba was nervous, fearing the Met might retaliate and hold a rival gala or even an opera ball to steal her audience away from her.
On her historic first night at the Manhattan Opera House, on 2 January 1907, as Melba the diva stepped to the front of the stage to play her role as Violetta in La Traviata, there was a storm of applause. The floor of the house was a vast sea of glittering jewels worn by the audience. For a moment Melba stood motionless, as if blinded by the flashing diamonds and gleaming white shirt fronts. The opera house was silent for a moment, and the audience started to wonder if certain rumours were true and Melba had lost her nerve. Then the orchestra started up and that beautiful silvery voice rang out across the theatre, casting its unforgettable spell.
There were rave reviews. Her performance was described by The Times opera correspondent as 'One long night of triumph. Melba's voice has its old-time lusciousness and purity, its exquisite smoothness and fullness. It poured out of her with spontaneity and freedom'. Melba had made American opera history; she broke the huge power of the Metropolitan and filled Oscar Hammerstein 's brand new Manhattan Opera House with New York society 'names', most of them defectors from the Met.
That night Melba received ten curtain calls. The vast opera house was a storm of waving handkerchiefs and cheering people. The rest of her New York season was a sellout, bringing excellent profits to Hammerstein and record-breaking performance fees to Melba's bank account. The mighty Metropolitan implored her to return to its stage. Her gamble had paid off handsomely.
Return to Australia in triumph
In 1909, at the height of her fame, Melba made another sentimental journey back to her homeland on what was to be a backblock tour of Australia's remote country areas. Everywhere she went ordinary Australians turned out to see her. In remote areas they arrived by cart, bullock wagon, on horseback or on foot. To the Scots among them she was 'their' Nellie, David Mitchell's lass, who had made good in the big world. They were so proud of her. These were unsophisticated people who knew nothing of Italian opera: for them she sang the old favorites like 'Home, Sweet Home' and 'Coming' Through the Rye'. Each concert was sold out; everywhere she went she was feted like royalty at banquets and receptions.
The enthusiasm with which Australians greeted her affected her deeply. 'In Britain and Europe I am loved,' she is supposed to have said. It marked a turning point - she knew now that after she retired she wanted to spend her final years in Australia. Melba devised a good method for dealing with journalists who asked invasive questions: she simply talked through them about something else as though she was deaf. She refused to answer any questions that she found too personal, especially those dealing with the Duke of Orleans.
For many years she had thought about building or buying a home in Australia and spending more time near her beloved father. On this trip she found the land she had dreamed of at Coldstream, six and a half kilometres from her father's limestone quarries at Lilydale. It was in gentle countryside and was surrounded by low rolling hills. She bought an old stone farm cottage and commissioned Melbourne architect John Grainger (father of the composer Percy Grainger) to design her an elegant country home. Her new house took almost two years to complete with its terraced garden, English-style lawns and a large swimming pool. She called it Coombe Cottage, after a house in which she had been very happy in England. In 1911 Melba returned to Australia gain, eager to see how her house was progressing. She was heading an enterprise to bring to Australians opera of international standard in joint Melba-J.C. Williamson seasons, a project in which she had invested money. She and her accompanist and lifelong friend John Lemmone, who had assumed a managerial role in her later life, engaged all the artistes.
By now David Mitchell was in his eighties; worry about his health was the main reason Melba came back to Melbourne again in the northern summer of 1914. She could not anticipate that the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo in a few months time would spark a world war which would see Covent Garden close for five years and put out the lights in all the capital cities of Europe. The onset of World War I meant that Melba spent several years in Australia, with Coombe Cottage as her base. She threw herself heart and soul into war work, bringing the full weight of her personality, her tenacity of purpose and her legendary attention to detail into fundraising and supporting Australian and occasionally British troops in the field. She was intent on helping to win the war against Germany and allowed her large and luxurious Paris apartment to be used as a convalescent home for wounded Australian soldiers, generously funding it herself.
In Australia Melba gave concerts in every State capital and in wooden halls way out in the bush to raise money for the wounded. She generously financed Melba's Gift Book, published as another fundraising gesture, which sold in huge numbers; Melba signed numerous individual copies until her hands and wrists were sore. She personally paid for Red Cross parcels of cigarettes and chocolate to be sent at Christmas to soldiers in the Dardanelles campaign and in the trenches of northern France. The fact that she was no longer able to perform at Coven t Garden, coupled with the huge sums she gave away in aid of the war effort, made severe inroads into her capital.
Wartime travel was hazardous and difficult between England and Australia but was still possible by ocean liner to America, each time giving concerts after which she personally auctioned flags for huge sums. She made fundraising speeches in which she exhorted the Americans to enter the war on the side of the British, an d raised large amounts of American dollars to provide comforts for British and Australian troops serving in the trenches. Her contribution was outstanding, way above what anyone had expected of her and it was this, as much as her voice, which placed her on the British Honours list. On her American tours she feared that German Intelligence had schedule her assassination because of her fundraising activities. Some biographers have viewed these fears as illustrative of how grandiose she had become, but it does seem an amazing series of coincidences that while Melba was in America she was involved in several car accidents, the engine of a train in which she was travelling blew up (injuring several passengers but leaving her unscathed), and a bomb exploded between these accidents and German Intelligence was ever established.
In 1916 she received news that her father was critically ill, and set off to see him. David Mitchell, now eighty-seven, went into hospital and died on the operating able. Unfortunately the ship on which Melba was travelling was delayed and did not dock until after his de3ath, which caused her a great deal of heartache. When the war ended Melba was awarded a DBE, Dame of the British Empire; in 1927 she was created a GBE (Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire). Proceeds from previous Melbourne concerts had gone towards building a concert hall at Melbourne University, which was named Melba Hall; it opened in 1913. Now, due to internal disagreements in the music world, Melba joined forces with the English-born composer-director Fritz Hart to start her own all-female singing school at what became known as the Albert Street conservatorium (now the Melba Memorial conservatorium at York Street, Richmond). She designed a uniform for the girls which was ornamented with a large 'M' and taught there free of charge. She used what she referred to as the Melba method (which was really the Marchiesi method with modifications) and published a book titled The Melba Method, ghosted by Fritz Hart. Melba tried to help young female singers, claiming that she was trying to discover 'a second Melba'. However, by a strange quirk she invariably chose girls who never achieved very much. Winning a Melba Scholarship proved traumatic for Stella Power, whom Melba tried to establish as 'Little Melba' until Power defied her and got married.
Melba was now in her late fifties, still energetic and bubbling with plans for fresh ventures. Her enormous success and fame did make her appear rather grandiose on occasions. For example, she designed a kind of royal warrant for the tradesmen of emporiums she patronised. The warrants, bearing a gold 'M' in place of the royal Arms, were engraved and framed in gold. She also presented tie pins and diamond booches to tradesmen who performed valuable services. She entertained frequently at Coombe cottage, but not all the guests enjoyed going there. The talented violinist Norah Clench, wife of Sir Arthur Streeton, absolutely detested spending weekends at Coombe Cottage because Melba demanded the full attention of her husband while ignoring her. Yet when Melba really liked someone she was warm-hearted and affectionate towards them and often offered help, just as she did to elderly performers down on their luck.
After the war Melba returned to London to find that practically an entire generation of young men was dead and the ambience of Covent Garden was quite changed. Unfortunately she had gained a great deal of weight during the war and now looked matronly. She continued to sing at her beloved Covent Garden but often lamented how times had changed, that audiences in the stalls and the dress circle no longer bothered to change into evening dress or don tiaras. In 1927 she came back to her homeland again. As Australia's most famous expatriate, she had been chosen to sing the National Anthem at the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra. Her son George, once he reached adulthood, had returned to her from America. After his marriage he and his wife lived in a house which Melba had specially designed and built for them in the grounds of Coombe Cottage.
Like most prima donnas Melba hated the idea of growing old and retiring, especially from Covent Garden, which she thought of as her second home. She gave numerous official farewell performances in London and Australia but always kept coming back to the stage, loath to tear herself away from the world she loved. On 14 October 1924, the Melbourne Argus reported one of her many farewell speeches: 'I have done my best. I have tried to keep faith with my art. For all that Australia has done for me, for all the beauty that she has shown me, for all the love she has offered, I wish to say, thank you from the bottom of my heart. I never was prouder than I am tonight to be an Australian women.'
her final Covent Garden farewell took place on 8 June 1926, and her performance in La Boheme was a triumph. King George V, Queen Mary and Edward, Prince of Wales, were there with other members of the royal family. The auditorium was a sea of jewels, tiaras and diamond-studded decorations, glistening bare shoulders and white shirt fronts. Some opera lovers feared that the age of sixty-seven, Melba would no longer be capable of giving a good performance. She proved them wrong. At that gala she sang so beautifully that the years seemed to recede and she was once again the great prima donna she had been a quarter of a century earlier. That heavenly legato was still there together with the wonderful technique. Everyone was entranced by her performance.
The applause was deafening; the theatre rang with cheers. Stagehands brought from her dressing-room all the floral tributes that Melba had received and laid them edge to edge. When the curtain rose again, the audience saw Melba standing in front of a pyramid of flowers taller than herself. The clapping and cheering died away as she moved forward to stand in front of the footlights. In a voice breaking with emotion she said: 'This is such a great and glorious evening, but you can imagine what a terrible feeling it is for me to think that I shall never sing within these beloved walls again.'
After thanking all those with whom she had worked Melba's eyes were filled with tears, like those of most of her audience. There would be numerous other farewells, leading to the old saying 'More far3eewells than Nellie Melba', but that night at Covent Garden was the one that affected her most. At least she could console herself that she had her beautiful Australian home to return to, and a devoted family and good friends. Melba spent her final years at Coombe Cottage with her son, his second wife Evie, and her little granddaughter Pamela (later Lady Vestey). She truly loved Pamela, who in turn adored the women she said had been, in every way, a perfect grandmother.
Following a long illness which stemmed from a fever she had caught years before in Egypt, complicated by septicaemia from a botched facelift, Dame Nellie Melba, Australia's most famous woman of her era, died in Sydney at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, on 23 February 1931, Her devoted and lifelong friend John Lemmone was present at her death bed. In accordance with her wishes, Melba was buried beside her father. Mountains of flowers and wreaths surrounded the coffin. Her will gave orders that the headstone on her grave should be engraved with Mimi's final poignant words from Puccini's La Boheme: 'Addio, senza rancore' ('Farewell, without bitterness').
Melba left handsome bequests to the conservatorium she had founded, to those who had served her and to elderly musicians in need. The bulk of her fortune and her jewels were left to her beloved granddaughter. Lady Pamela Vestey still lives at Coombe cottage and has written a delightfully illustrated memoir of her famous grandmother.
Melba's name lives on in the Melba Conservatorium of Music, while some of her personal effects are preserved in the Lilydale Museum. The name Melba will continue to be celebrated wherever opera is sung.