Life and career
Melba, drawn by Frank Haviland
Melba was born in Richmond, Victoria, the eldest of seven children of the builder David Mitchell and his wife Isabella Ann née Dow.[n 1] Mitchell, a Scot, had emigrated to Australia in 1852, becoming a successful builder. Melba was taught to play the piano and first sang in public around age six.[n 2] She was educated at a local boarding school and then at the Presbyterian Ladies' College. She studied singing with Mary Ellen Christian (a former pupil of Manuel García) and Pietro Cecchi, an Italian tenor, who was a respected teacher in Melbourne. In her teens, Melba continued to perform in amateur concerts in and around Melbourne, and she played the organ at church. Her father encouraged her in her musical studies, but he strongly disapproved of her taking up singing as a career. Melba's mother died suddenly in 1881 at Richmond.
Melba's father moved the family to Mackay, Queensland, where he built a new sugar mill. Melba soon became popular in Mackay society for her singing and piano-playing. On 22 December 1882 in Brisbane, she married Charles Nesbitt Frederick Armstrong (1858–1948), the youngest son of Sir Andrew Armstrong. They had one child, a son, George, born on 16 October 1883. The marriage was not a success; Charles reportedly beat his wife more than once. The couple separated after just over a year, and Melba returned to Melbourne determined to pursue a singing career, debuting professionally in concerts in 1884. She was often accompanied in concert, and some of her concerts were organised, at times throughout her career by the flautist John Lemmone, who became a "lifelong friend and counsellor". On the strength of local success, she travelled to London in search of an opportunity.[n 3] Her debut at the Princes' Hall in 1886 made little impression, and she sought work unsuccessfully from Sir Arthur Sullivan, Carl Rosa and Augustus Harris. She then went to Paris to study with the leading teacher Mathilde Marchesi, who instantly recognised the young singer's potential: she exclaimed, "J'ai enfin une étoile!" – "I have a star at last!". Melba made such rapid progress that she was allowed to sing the "Mad Scene" from Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet at a matinée musicale in Marchesi's house in December the same year, in the presence of the composer.
The young singer's talent was so evident that, after less than a year with Marchesi, the impresario Maurice Strakosch gave her a ten-year contract at 1000 francs annually. After she had signed, she received a far better offer of 3000 francs per month from the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels, but Strakosch would not release her and obtained an injunction preventing her from accepting it. She was in despair when the matter was resolved by Strakosch's sudden death. She made her operatic debut four days later as Gilda in Rigoletto at La Monnaie on 12 October 1887. The critic Herman Klein described her Gilda as "an instant triumph of the most emphatic kind ... followed ... a few nights later with an equal success as Violetta in La Traviata." It was at this time, on Marchesi's advice, that she adopted the stage name of "Melba", a contraction of the name of her home city.[n 4]
London, Paris and New York debuts
Melba made her Covent Garden début in May 1888, in the title role in Lucia di Lammermoor. She received a friendly but not excited reception. The Musical Times wrote, "Madame Melba is a fluent vocalist, and a quite respectable representative of light soprano parts; but she lacks the personal charm necessary to a great figure on the lyric stage." She was offended when Augustus Harris, then in charge at Covent Garden, offered her only the small role of the page Oscar in Un ballo in maschera for the next season. She left England vowing never to return. The following year, she performed at the Opéra in Paris, in the role of Ophélie in Hamlet; The Times described this as "a brilliant success", and said, "Madame Melba has a voice of great flexibility ... her acting is expressive and striking."
Melba had a strong supporter in London, Lady de Grey, whose views carried weight at Covent Garden. Melba was persuaded to return, and Harris cast her in Roméo et Juliette (June 1889) co-starring with Jean de Reszke. She later recalled, "I date my success in London quite distinctly from the great night of 15 June 1889." After this, she returned to Paris as Ophélie, Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Gilda in Rigoletto, Marguerite in Faust, and Juliette. In French operas her pronunciation was poor, but the composer Delibes said that he did not care whether she sang in French, Italian, German, English or Chinese, as long as she sang.[n 5]
Philippe, Duke of Orléans
In the early 1890s, Melba embarked on an affair with Prince Philippe, Duke of Orléans. They were seen frequently together in London, which excited some gossip, but far more suspicion arose when Melba travelled across Europe to St Petersburg to sing for Tsar Nicholas II: the Duke followed closely behind her, and they were spotted together in Paris, Brussels, Vienna and St Petersburg. Armstrong filed divorce proceedings on the grounds of Melba's adultery, naming the Duke as co-respondent; he was eventually persuaded to drop the case, but the Duke decided that a two-year African safari (without Melba) would be appropriate. He and Melba did not resume their relationship. In the first years of the decade, Melba appeared in the leading European opera houses, including Milan, Berlin and Vienna.
Melba sang the role of Nedda in Pagliacci at Covent Garden in 1893, soon after its Italian premiere. The composer was present, and said that the role had never been so well played before. In December of that year, Melba sang at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for the first time. As at her Covent Garden debut, she appeared as Lucia di Lammermoor, and as at Covent Garden, it was less than a triumph. The New York Times praised her performance – "one of the loveliest voices that ever issued from a human throat ... simply delicious in its fullness, richness and purity" – but the work was out of fashion, and the performances were poorly attended. Her performance in Roméo et Juliette, later in the season, was a triumph and established her as the leading prima donna of the time in succession to Adelina Patti. She had at first been nonplussed by the impenetrable snobbery at the Metropolitan; the author Peter Conrad has written, "In London she hobnobbed with royalty; in New York she was a singing menial." Assured of critical success, she set herself to achieve social recognition, and succeeded.
Melba as Marguerite in Faust
From the 1890s, Melba played a wide range of parts at Covent Garden, mostly in the lyric soprano repertoire, but with some heavier roles also. She sang the title roles in Herman Bemberg's Elaine and Arthur Goring Thomas's Esmeralda. Her Italian parts included Gilda in Rigoletto, the title role in Aida, Desdemona in Otello, Luisa in Mascagni's I Rantzau, Nedda in Pagliacci, Rosina in The Barber of Seville, Violetta in La traviata, and Mimì in La bohème. In the French repertoire, she sang Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, Marguerite in Faust, Marguerite de Valois in Les Huguenots, the title role in Saint-Saëns's Hélène, which was written for her, and Micaëla in Carmen.
Some writers expressed surprise at Melba's playing the last of these roles, since it was merely a supporting part in the opera. She played it on many occasions, saying in her memoirs, "Why on earth a prima donna should not sing secondary rôles I could not see then and am no nearer seeing to-day. I hate the artistic snobbery of it." She sang the role opposite the Carmens of Emma Calvé, Zélie de Lussan and Maria Gay. Marguerite de Valois, too, is not the leading female role in Les Huguenots, but Melba was willing to undertake it as seconda donna to Emma Albani. She was generous in support of singers who did not rival her in her favoured roles, but was, as her biographer J. B. Steane put it, "pathologically critical" of other lyric sopranos.
Melba was not known as a Wagner singer, although she occasionally sang Elsa in Lohengrin and Elisabeth in Tannhäuser. She received a certain amount of praise in these roles, although Klein found her unsuited to them, and Bernard Shaw thought she sang with great skill but played artificially and without sensibility. In 1896 at the Metropolitan, she attempted the role of Brünnhilde in Siegfried, in which she was not a success. Her most frequent role in that house was Marguerite in Gounod's Faust, which she had studied under the supervision of the composer. She never essayed any of Mozart's operas, for which some thought her voice ideally suited. Her repertoire across her entire career amounted to no more than 25 roles, of which, The Times obituarist wrote, "only some 10 parts are those which will be remembered as her own."
Melba's marriage to Armstrong was finally terminated when, having emigrated to the United States with their son, he divorced her in Texas in 1900.
By now established as a leading star in Britain and America, Melba made her first return visit to Australia in 1902–03 for a concert tour, also touring in New Zealand.[n 6] The profits were unprecedented; she returned for four more tours during her career. In Britain, Melba campaigned on behalf of Puccini's La bohème. She had first sung the part of Mimì in 1899, having studied it with the composer. She argued strongly for further productions of the work in the face of the distaste expressed by the Covent Garden management at this "new and plebeian opera". She was vindicated by the public enthusiasm for the piece, which was bolstered in 1902 when Enrico Caruso joined her in the first of many Covent Garden performances together. She sang Mimì for Oscar Hammerstein I at his opera house in New York, in 1907, giving the enterprise a needed boost. After her initial successes in Brussels and Paris in the 1880s, Melba sang infrequently on the European continent; only the English-speaking countries welcomed her wholeheartedly.
She performed 26 times at the Royal Albert Hall in London between 1898 and 1926. Although she called Covent Garden "my artistic home", her appearances there became less frequent in the 20th century. One reason for this was that she did not get on well with Sir Thomas Beecham, who was in control of the opera house for much of the period from 1910 until her retirement. She said, "I dislike Beecham and his methods", and he thought that while she had "nearly all the attributes inseparable from great artistry ... she was wanting in a genuine spiritual refinement." Another factor in her reduced appearances at Covent Garden was the appearance on the scene of Luisa Tetrazzini, a soprano ten years her junior, who became a great success in London and later in New York in roles previously associated with Melba. A third reason was her decision to spend more time in Australia. In 1909 she undertook what she called a "sentimental tour" of Australia, covering 10,000 miles (16,093 km) and including many remote towns. In 1911 in partnership with the J. C. Williamson company, she appeared in an operatic season. Her attitude to her tour concerts and the audiences attending was summed up in the advice that Clara Butt said Melba gave her apropos of a planned Australian tour: "Sing 'em muck; it's all they can understand."[n 7] To another colleague and compatriot, Peter Dawson, she described his home city of Adelaide as "that city of the three P's – Parsons, Pubs and Prostitutes."
In 1909, Melba bought property at Coldstream, a small town near Melbourne, and in 1912 she had a home built there (extending an existing cottage) that she named Coombe Cottage after a house she had rented near London. She also set up a music school in Richmond, which she later merged into the Melbourne Conservatorium. She was in Australia when the First World War broke out, and she threw herself into fund-raising for war charities, raising £100,000.[n 8] In recognition of this, she was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) in March 1918, "for services in organising patriotic work".[n 9]
After the war, Melba made a triumphant return to the Royal Opera House, in a performance of La bohème conducted by Beecham, which re-opened the house after four years of closure. The Times wrote, "Probably no season at Covent Garden has ever started with quite the thrill of enthusiasm which passed through the house." In her many concerts, however, her repertoire was regarded as trite and predictable. After one of them The Musical Times wrote:
The real musical interest of the afternoon, however, was supposed to centre in the "Jewel Song" from Faust, Puccini's "Addio", Lieurance's "By the waters of Minnetonka", and Tosti's "Good-bye", and in the encores, thoughtfully announced beforehand – "Home, sweet Home" and "Annie Laurie." Look again at the last batch of head-lines. "The Diva to go home." By all means. Why not? As the Diva has melodiously declared (only too often), there's no place like it. "And teach 100 girls herself." If the Dame can give those hundred girls her own beautiful voice, well and good, but for heaven's sake let a musician be called in to attend to their repertoire. We cannot lightly face the prospect of a hundred débutantes let loose on us a year hence full to the epiglottis with "Minnetonkas", "Jewel Songs", and "Home, sweet Homes".
In 1922 Melba returned to Australia, where she sang at the immensely successful "Concerts for the People" in Melbourne and Sydney, with low ticket prices, attracting 70,000 people. In 1924 for another Williamson opera season, she caused resentment among local singers by importing an entire chorus from Naples. In 1926 she made her farewell appearance at Covent Garden, singing in scenes from Roméo et Juliette Otello, and La bohème. She is well remembered in Australia for her seemingly endless series of "farewell" appearances, including stage performances in the mid-1920s and concerts in Sydney on 7 August 1928, Melbourne on 27 September 1928 and Geelong in November 1928. From this, she is remembered in the vernacular Australian expression "more farewells than Dame Nellie Melba".
In 1929 she returned for the last time to Europe and then visited Egypt, where she contracted a fever that she never entirely shook off. Her last performance was in London at a charity concert on 10 June 1930. She returned to Australia but died in St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney, in 1931, aged 69, of septicaemia which had developed after facial surgery in Europe some time before. She was given an elaborate funeral from Scots' Church, Melbourne, which her father had built and where as a teenager she had sung in the choir. The funeral motorcade was over a kilometre long, and her death made front-page headlines in Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, and Europe. Billboards in many countries said simply "Melba is dead". Part of the event was filmed for posterity. Melba was buried in the cemetery at Lilydale, near Coldstream. Her headstone bears Mimì's farewell words: "Addio, senza rancor" (Farewell, without bitterness).