Childhood & Early Life
Nellie Melba was born on 19 May 1861, in Richmond, Victoria, to builder David Mitchell and his wife Isabella Ann née Dow Mitchell. Melba was the eldest surviving child of the family and had seven younger siblings.
Right from childhood, she received piano lessons. She studied singing with Mary Ellen Christian and Pietro Cecchi, and received her education at a local boarding school. Later, she studied at the Presbyterian Ladies' College. Her first public performance was at the age of six.
During her teen years, she performed in amateur concerts and as a church organist. She received encouragement in pursuing musical studies from her father but he strongly disapproved of it as a career. Meanwhile, at the age of 20, she lost her mother.
The family eventually shifted to Mackay, Queensland, where her father built a new sugar mill. Soon after, she became popular in the region for her musical skills.
After a short unsuccessful marriage to Charles Armstrong, she decided to pursue a singing career and debuted professionally in 1884. She was assisted in organising her concerts by flautist John Lemmone, who became a ‘lifelong friend and counsellor’.
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Considering her success in Melbourne, she travelled to London in search of better opportunities. However, her debut at the Princes' Hall in 1886 failed to create an impression.
Nellie Melba then went to Paris to study with Mathilde Marchesi, who immediately recognised her talent. She made rapid progress and within a year, impresario Maurice Strakosch assigned her a ten year contract at 1000 francs annually.
Almost immediately, she received a better offer of 3000 francs per month from the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels. However, Strakosch restrained her from accepting it. She finally regained her freedom when Strakosch suddenly expired.
She made her opera debut on 12 October 1887 at La Monnaie as Gilda in ‘Rigoletto’ and a few nights later as Violetta in ‘La Traviata’. It was around this time that she adopted the alias of ‘Melba’.
In May 1888, she debuted in London’s Covent Garden in the title role of ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. Her performance received a luke-warm response. Snubbed on being offered a smaller role in the following season, she left England. In 1889, she performed in the role of Ophélie in Hamlet at the Opéra in Paris.
Soon, her strong ally in London, the influential Lady de Grey begged her to return. She consented and was cast in ‘Roméo et Juliette’ at the Covent Garden.
After this, she returned to Paris to perform the roles of Ophélie, Lucia, Gilda, Juliette, and Marguerite. Her pronunciation in French was weak, but the composer Delibes was satisfied with her singing. In the next few years, she performed in the top European opera houses of Milan, Berlin and Vienna.
In December 1893, she debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York as Lucia di Lammermoor. Her performance received a half-hearted response. However, her later performance in ‘Roméo et Juliette’ was successful and established her as the foremost prima donna of her era, in succession to Adelina Patti.
From the 1890s, she played assorted roles at Covent Garden, mostly in the lyric soprano repertoire. She sang the title roles in Herman Bemberg's ‘Elaine’ and Arthur Goring Thomas's ‘Esmeralda’.
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Her Italian roles were Gilda in Rigoletto, Desdemona in Othello, Nedda in Pagliacci, Violetta in La traviata, Mimi in La bohème, etc. Likewise, her French roles were Juliette in Roméo et Juliette, Marguerite in Faust, the title role in Saint-Saëns's Hélène (written for her), Micaëla in Carmen, etc. Some of these roles required her to play the second donna which she readily obliged.
By the turn of the 20th century, she was a celebrity in Britain and America. She first returned to Australia in 1902–03 for a concert tour, and visited New Zealand as well. The profits were exceptionally high and she returned for four more tours later during her career.
In Britain, she promoted Puccini's ‘La bohème’; she had first sung the part of Mimi in 1899, having studied it with the composer. She strongly supported the production of the work although it was opposed by the Covent Garden management. She was finally proved right by the public’s response.
Her appearances in her “artistic home” Covent Garden gradually reduced in the 20th century. This was because first, she disliked Sir Thomas Beecham, who was in-charge of Covent Garden from 1910 till her retirement. Secondly, she was required to appear next to her junior yet successful soprano Luisa Tetrazzini and thirdly, she chose to spend more time in Australia.
In 1909, she undertook a “sentimental tour” of Australia, visiting many far-flung towns. She also bought a property at Coldstream, a small town near Melbourne, and two years later built a home there that she named ‘Coombe Cottage’.
Simultaneously, she also set up a music school in Richmond, which she later merged with the Melbourne Conservatorium. In 1911, she partnered with the J. C. Williamson Company for an operatic season in Australia.
During the First World War, she actively raised £100,000 funds for war charities. In recognition of her effort, in March 1918, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE) “for services in organising patriotic work”.
Post war, she made a triumphant return to the Royal Opera House, with a performance of ‘La bohème’. This re-opened the house after almost four years of closure.
In 1922, she returned to Australia again, and performed at the immensely successful ‘Concerts for the People’ held in Melbourne and Sydney. The tickets were low priced and attracted 70,000 people.
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In 1926, she made her leave-taking appearance at Covent Garden, singing scenes from Roméo et Juliette, Othello, and La bohème.
In Australia, she had a never-ending series of ‘farewell’ appearances including stage performances in the mid-1920s, and concerts in Sydney, Melbourne, and Geelong through 1928.
In 1929, she returned for the last time to Europe before visiting Egypt, where she got a nagging fever. Her last performance was on 10 June, 1930 in London, at a charity concert.
She helped flourish the careers of several younger singers and taught for many years at the Melbourne Conservatorium, searching for a “new Melba”. She even published a book about her methods.
Personal Life & Legacy
On 22 December 1882, Melba married Charles Nesbitt Frederick Armstrong in Brisbane. The couple’s son, George, was born on 16 October 1883. The marriage was unsuccessful as Charles allegedly used to beat his wife. The couple separated after a year.
In the early 1890s, she had an affair with Prince Philippe, Duke of Orléans. When spotted together frequently, Charles filed for a divorce on the grounds of adultery, accusing the Duke as well. Although Charles eventually withdrew the case, the scandalised Duke left for a two-year African safari without Melba and their relationship faded out. Charles and Melba finally divorced in 1900 in Texas.
Towards the end of her life, she returned to Australia. She died of septicaemia on 23 February 1931, at St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney. She was given an elaborate funeral from Scots' Church, Melbourne and was buried in the cemetery at Lilydale, near Coldstream.