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Born Helen Porter Mitchell into a family of Scottish origin, Melba played the piano and sang during her education at a local boarding school and Presbyterian Ladies College. She went on to study singing with Mary Ellen Christian (a former pupil of Manuel García) and Pietro Cecchi in Melbourne, where she performed in amateur concerts. Although she had married and become the mother of a son, Melba separated from her husband and made her professional debut in Melbourne in 1884.

On the strength of local success she left for London, where her debut took place in 1886; but on making little impact she moved to Paris and became a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, who on first hearing her exclaimed ‘J’ai enfin une étoile!’ (‘I have a star at last!’). On Marchesi’s advice, Melba adopted her new stage name, a contraction of the name of her native city. Her operatic debut, immediately successful, was as Gilda / Rigoletto in Brussels in 1887, followed shortly after by Violetta / La traviata.

The next year Melba made her debut at the Royal Opera House, London in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Her performance met with only a respectful reception; but when, with the support of local nobility, she sang Juliette / Roméo et Juliette opposite Jean de Reszke in 1889, she enjoyed a triumph from which she later dated her true success as an opera singer.

Henceforth Covent Garden was to be Melba’s artistic home; but back in Paris, she sang Ophélie / Hamlet, Lucia, Gilda, Juliette and Marguerite / Faust and embarked on an affair with the Duke of Orléans, a claimant to the French throne. During the 1890s she appeared in Milan, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg (where Czar Alexander III gave her a diamond necklace valued at $100,000) as well as in London, where she sang a variety of parts including the title roles in Bemberg’s Elaine and Arthur Goring Thomas’s Esmeralda. Italian roles in London included Gilda, Violetta, the title part in Aida, Desdemona / Otello, Luisa / Rantzau (Mascagni), Nedda / Pagliacci, Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia and Mimì / La bohème; and in the French repertoire she sang Juliette, Marguerite, Marguerite de Valois / Les Huguenots, the title role in Saint-Saëns’s Hélène (which was written for her) and Micaëla / Carmen.

In 1893 Melba made her American debut at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. As in London, she sang Lucia, again with muted success that changed to adulation when she sang Juliette. She returned to the Met up until 1912, singing there in 1896 her only Brünnhilde (Siegfried). This, an experiment which caused vocal stress, was not repeated.

Melba returned to Australia during 1902–1903 for an extremely profitable concert tour (one of four during her career). During the decade before World War I she sang less in Europe; indeed in 1909 she bought a property outside Melbourne and set up a music school which later merged with the Melbourne Conservatory. She did however frequently perform Mimì, despite initial local disdain for La Bohème in London. Singing opposite Caruso she enjoyed enormous popular success in this role at Covent Garden in 1902 (and sang it in New York for Oscar Hammerstein I’s Opera Company in 1907); but sang less frequently at Covent Garden as Sir Thomas Beecham, whom she disliked, increased his influence there from 1910 onwards. Nonetheless she returned there in triumph in 1919 – in La Bohème, with Beecham conducting.

In Australia, Melba’s popular, low-cost ‘Concerts for the People’ in Melbourne and Sydney, given in 1922, drew crowds of around 70,000 and she undertook an opera tour of the country with the Williamson organisation in 1924. She returned to Covent Garden for her farewell in 1926, performing scenes from Roméo et Juliette, Otello and La Bohème, and gave a large number of ‘farewell performances’ in Australia during 1928. Returning to Europe in 1929, Melba visited Egypt. Here she contracted a fever from which she never fully recovered, dying shortly after she had travelled back to Australia following a charity concert in London in 1930.

As a teacher, Melba helped many young singers. During World War I she was very active as a fund-raiser for war charities, in recognition of which she was made a Dame in 1918. In addition to her musical achievements, she also had a number of culinary creations named after her by the French chef Auguste Escoffier: these included Peach Melba and Melba Toast.

Between 1904 and 1926 Melba made numerous recordings for The Gramophone and Victor Companies. Despite the crudeness of early recording processes, these still reveal a seamless lyric voice, with accurate intonation, smooth legato and effortless coloratura.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

Role: Classical Artist 
Album Title
Catalogue No  Work Category 
A TO Z OF SINGERS Naxos Educational
A TO Z OF STRING PLAYERS Naxos Educational
GREAT SINGERS (1904-1952) Naxos Historical
Choral - Sacred
MCCORMACK, John: McCormack Edition, Vol. 2: The Acoustic Recordings (1910-1911) Naxos Historical
MELBA, Nellie: American Recordings, Vol. 2 (1909-1910) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Choral - Sacred, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
MELBA, Nellie: American Recordings, Vol. 1 (1907) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Choral - Sacred, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
MELBA, Nellie: American Recordings, Vol. 3 (1907-1916) Naxos Historical
Chamber Music, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal
MELBA, Nellie: London and Middlesex Recordings (1921-1926) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera
MELBA, Nellie: London Recordings (1904) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Choral - Sacred, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal
MELBA, Nellie: London Recordings (1904) Naxos Historical
Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Orchestral, Vocal
MELBA, Nellie: Paris and London Recordings (1908-1913) Naxos Historical
Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal, Opera, Vocal

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