Nellie Melba

Helen Porter Armstrong (1861-1931), prima donna, was born on 19 May 1861 at Richmond, Melbourne, as Helen Porter Mitchell, eldest surviving of ten children of Isabella Ann (born Dow) and David Mitchell, a building contractor. Both parents were amateur musicians. When education by her aunts at home was hampered by her unruly behaviour, Nellie was sent to a boarding school at Richmond, but her adolescent years were spent at Presbyterian Ladies' College. There she became a pupil of Ellen Christian, a former pupil of Manuel Garcia, and a successful English concert singer.

At eighteen Nellie retreated to the domestic and social life expected of the eldest daughter in a wealthy family, though she was permitted, as a social grace, to continue singing lessons, begun at school with Pietro Cecchi, a former singer with the Lyster Opera Company. Two years later her mother died at 48, followed shortly by the death of the youngest sister. David Mitchell accepted a contract to build a sugar mill at Marion near Mackay in northern Queensland, taking Nellie with him. There she met sugar plantation manager Charles Armstrong, sixth son of a Scottish baronet. Known as Kangaroo Charlie, the former jackaroo was a handsome man with a wild temper. Against her father's wishes, Nellie married Charlie in Brisbane on 22 December 1882. Primitive living conditions in the tropics, a dwindling income, and a plethora of outbursts from Armstrong finally drove her to leave her husband. On 19 January 1884 she left for Melbourne with her infant son George, to begin a concert career with the artistic and financial help of Cecchi. Her father, whose influence in her life was and remained paramount, housed his daughter, but refused assistance to establish a career on the stage, of which he disapproved.

In March 1886 she sailed for London with her husband and child as part of David Mitchell's entourage when he was appointed Victoria's Commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London. Mitchell was determined that the marriage should be mended, if only in order to preserve the facade of respectability expected of someone in his position, and he took Nellie with him only on that condition. She accepted the bait. She had been unable to earn the money needed for this opportunity to open up her career. With her father reluctantly providing a modest income, she went to Paris to become a pupil of one of the leading singing teachers of the day, Mathilde Marchesi. In later life Melba repudiated Cecchi's claims to having 'created' her voice and would acknowledge only Marchesi as her teacher.

Melba's highly successful operatic debut occurred on 13 October 1887 as Gilda in Rigoletto at the Theatre de la Monnaie in Brussels. Her London debut, in May 1888 in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor, was a failure. She returned to Brussels. In May 1889 she made her Paris debut as Orphelie in Hamlet to acclaim. Under the patronage of Lady de Grey and the Princess of Wales, Melba attempted a second Covent Garden season, opening in Romeo et Juliette. This time she had a triumph. Based at Covent Garden, she appeared in every season (with the exception of 1909 and 1912) until the war, when the Garden closed for the duration and thereafter occasionally until 1926. She first sang at La Scala and at the Metropolitan in New York in 1893, appearing at the latter house regularly until 1901 and again in the 1904 and 1910 seasons. She was among the highest paid singers of the day, with a fortune enhanced through financial advice of de Rothchild, when she quit the Met., where she was unable to dictate the terms of her engagements, for Oscar Hammerstein's new Manhattan Opera, where she could. She appeared for Hammerstein from 1907 until 1909 when the Manhattan failed.

Only once in her long career did Melba falter. In 1890 she met Philippe, Duc d'Orleans, heir to the Pretender to the French throne. The affair which ensued became public knowledge. Melba's estranged husband sued for divorce, naming the Duc as corespondent. Though the matter was finally dropped due to diplomatic pressure, Melba had become notorious. Royalty and hence the aristocracy and fashionable society, the mainstay of her support at Covent Garden, temporarily withdrew their favours. Realising the danger, Melba separated from the Duc. Armstrong removed George from Melba's custody and took him to America. Melba was divorced in Texas in 1901. She did not see her son again until he was an adult.

Melba was a coloratura with a bel canto repertoire, but in 1897, determined to capitalise on the fashion for Wagnerian opera, she foolishly attempted Brunnhilde (Siegfried) at the Met. Her voice was so badly damaged that she was unable to sing for three months.

In 1902 Melba returned to Australia on a concert tour. She was by then internationally famous. Shortly after she left John Ezra Norton, editor of Truth, published an open letter groundlessly accusing her of a thousand sins including drunkenness. Melba refused to answer the charges, her lifelong policy towards all scandal mongering. Norton's jealous ravings cast a shadow over her reputation from which it never recovered. Much later she was reported in Dame Clara Butt's ghosted autobiography as advising her colleague, then about to tour Australia, to 'sing 'em muck', it was all Australians could understand. This time Melba denied it, but to no avail.

In 1909 Melba embarked on a country concert tour of Australia, a queen's progress. In 1911 she returned to bring her countrymen opera of international standard in the first of the Melba-J. C. Williamson seasons. She repeated this in 1924 and 1928. At the outbreak of the 1914-18 war, Melba was at Coombe cottage, the house built for her by John Grainger, father of the composer Percy Grainger. With Covent Garden closed she expected to remain in Australia, marooned by the war, but in fact she spent the war years giving concerts to raise funds for the war wounded, first in Australia and later in America. She was appointed DBE for this work.

In 1915 she founded a women's singing school at the Albert St Conservatorium in East Melbourne, then under the directorship of the composer Fritz Hart, many of whose 22 operas were written with the school in mind. The women trained by Melba, who gave her services free, became the teachers of a new generation, extending the Melba legacy into the future. Melba's methods were embodied in a manual, The Melba Method, which she wrote with Fritz Hart and Mary Campbell. In 1904 Melba began a recording career which helped establish the credibility of the gramophone, recording some 168 items, though the primitive technology of the times makes it difficult to understand the reported magnificence of her voice, let alone the spell she seems to have cast over all who heard her, even in her latter years.

Melba gave her Covent Garden farewell performance on 8 June l926. Her Australian farewells occurred in 1928. Though the phrase 'more farewells than Nellie Melba' entered the language, she in fact gave fewer than Patti and was merely following the custom of great singers in Europe, a tradition not understood in Australia.

Melba died at St Vincent's Hospital, Darlinghurst, Sydney on 23 February 1931 from septicaemia, the result of facial surgery performed in Europe shortly beforehand. She was mourned in Australia as the greatest figure of her time, the woman who put Australia on the cultural map.

Thérèse Radic

Thérèse Radic Melba: the Voice of Australia 1986.