19 May, 2020
Dame Nellie Melba was Australia’s first international star. She conquered the world’s great opera houses in London, Paris, Milan and New York.
Melba’s professional life and glittering social circle brought her into contact with royalty, high society and the artistic elite. She was dressed by leading French couturiers and famously honoured by the creation of the dessert Pêche Melba. Yet despite this world of fame and glamour, a genuine love of Australia remained at her core.
Nellie Melba, c.1902. Photograph by H. Walter Barnett. Transferred from the Dennis Wolanski Library, Sydney Opera House, 1997; Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Melba proudly declared her nationality and often spoke fondly of her homeland. In her autobiography she stated: “If you wish to understand me at all … you must understand first and foremost, that I am an Australian.”
Her famous stage name, adopted before her operatic debut in 1887, honoured her home city of Melbourne. Mrs Charles Armstrong (born Helen Porter Mitchell) became Nellie Melba, creating a name that is still widely recognised and used today.
Programme for Nellie Melba’s Australian Concert Tour, Melbourne, 1902. Transferred from the Queensland Performing Arts Trust, 2002; Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Although she spent much of her adult life overseas, Melba returned to Australia periodically to perform and to visit family and friends. In 1902, after 16 years abroad, Melba returned home as a world-famous opera star to an enthusiastic reception. This was the first of her numerous concert tours in Australia and New Zealand.
While in Australia in 1909, Melba purchased Coombe Cottage at Coldstream in the Yarra Valley. She later commissioned extensions and an in-ground swimming pool, one of the first installed in an Australian private property. Coombe Cottage became her haven away from the glare of the international spotlight and a permanent home in the country of her birth.
In 1911 Melba joined forces with leading Australian theatrical management J. C. Williamson Ltd and headlined an opera season featuring principal artists recruited from across Europe. Further Melba-Williamson seasons were presented in 1924 and 1928, fulfilling Melba’s desire to share grand opera with Australian audiences.
Coombe Cottage, 1921. Etching by Cyril Dillon. Gift of Ken Stone, 1983; Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne. Reproduced courtesy of the Cyril Dillon estate
When war was declared in 1914, Melba was in Australia visiting her father, David Mitchell. Wartime saw the closure of many opera houses in Europe, including London’s Covent Garden where Melba reigned as prima donna. As a result, she spent the war years in Australia and North America, dedicating herself to raising funds for wartime charities.
Melba performed in many patriotic concerts and also initiated the Melba Gift Book, a fundraising publication that featured the work of prominent Australian artists and writers. Among them were C. J. Dennis, Hans Heysen, Henry Lawson, Norman Lindsay, Dorothea Mackellar, Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite.
Melba’s wartime work raised an estimated £100,000 and it was due to these patriotic efforts that she was made a Dame in 1918.
Costume worn by Nellie Melba as Desdemona in Otello, c.1924. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977; Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
From the mid-1920s, reluctant to withdraw from the spotlight, Melba undertook an extensive series of farewell performances in London and Australia, prompting the colloquial phrase: “More farewells than Nellie Melba”. In 1927, she sang the national anthem at the official opening of Parliament House in Canberra.
Melba had also taught at Melbourne’s Albert Street Conservatorium from 1915, sharing her musical knowledge and experience with young female students. In her will, she made a generous bequest for a scholarship to train young opera singers “in the hope that another Melba may arise”. In 1956 the institution was renamed the Melba Memorial Conservatorium in her honour.
Dame Nellie Melba (fourth from left), Fritz Hart and students from Albert Street Conservatorium, Melbourne, 1927. Photograph by The Herald and Weekly Times Ltd. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
Melba’s death in Sydney in 1931 made news headlines around the world. A special train, fitted with a glass plate window to reveal her coffin, made stops along the way to Melbourne. At Scots’ Church in Collins Street, 5,000 people paid their respects before her funeral. Afterwards, the cortège passed grief-stricken mourners lining the route to Lilydale cemetery, where Melba was buried alongside her family.
Melba regularly ended her concerts with the song 'Home Sweet Home’, playing her own accompaniment on piano. Her rendition of this sentimental ballad evoked particularly emotional responses in her Australian audiences – and often moved the great diva to tears.
Tin for Melba Wafers, c.1920s. Manufactured by Swallow & Ariell Ltd, Melbourne. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne
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