Woman Melba, Nellie

Opera Diva
Alternative Names
  • Mitchell, Helen Porter

Written by Jennifer Gall, National Film and Sound Archive

Dame Nellie Melba (Helen Porter Mitchell) was born in Melbourne in 1866, the eldest surviving child of building contractor, David Mitchell and his wife Isabella. She has maintained her reputation since the early twentieth century, both in her country of birth and abroad, as Australia's most famous woman. Her unquestionable status as opera diva and generous benefactor to Australian music is coloured by her reputation as a wayward child, runaway wife, neglectful mother and a woman of loose morals who achieved notoriety as the mistress of the Pretender to the French throne. It is this combination of artistic achievement and free-spirited excess in her character that has made her legendary. The magnificence of her success was an achievement in which all Australians could bask. As Thérèse Radic explains, Melba's fame was a shrine at which her countrymen worshipped, admiring her ability to 'take a gift of nature and turn it into diamonds, furs, cars, houses, travel, parties and investments ... [enabling her] to lead what can only be called the grand lif.' (Radic, p. viii).

Melba understood that 'legends are created and transmitted through the voices of many people' (Radic: p. viii). Like the great ballerina, Anna Pavlova, Melba used the phenomenon of her operatic success to promote herself through many tours, as a consummate artist capable of touching the lives of people from all levels of society. She made only 25 roles her own - a strikingly small number of Operatic characters for such a long career - but she wisely adhered to music that showcased her particular skills. Her tours of regional Australia and provincial England in the early twentieth century took her to ramshackle country halls in hundreds of remote settlements where she often performed simple, sentimental songs which were accessible to her listeners. Some commentators have dismissed this repertoire as maudlin and a cynical money-making exercise on Melba's part, but in her recordings of such homely songs as Home Sweet Home and Coming Through the Rye her impeccably accurate intonation, her silvery tone and disciplined phrasing resonate still as the musical achievements of a superb artist.

In her autobiography Melodies and Memories Melba wrote: 'If you wish to understand me at all you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian' (p. 9). Throughout her long career at Covent Garden, she championed her national identity, teaching her own and subsequent generations of Australian artists that with self-confidence and enormous hard work there was no need to kowtow to English cultural superiority. From the earliest days of her musical training, Melba was determined to make her mark on her own terms as a self-made woman. In 1883 she sat in a house in far north Queensland listening to the pouring rain, her marriage of a few months in tatters, and a baby on the way. Melba resolved to leave domesticity behind her and pursue her interrupted career as a singer. She returned to Melbourne and took lessons with several teachers, most notably Pietro Cecchi, and made a successful Australian debut in 1884. Determined to pursue singing opportunities abroad, she travelled to London, making an unremarkable debut at Princes Hall in 1886. Receiving little encouragement from the musical world in London, she left for Mathilde Marchesi's Paris studio. When Melba sang for Marchesi, the teacher reportedly exclaimed 'J'ai enfin une étoile!' (I have a star at last!) (Melba, p. 31).

Two impresarios vied to secure her after two years tuition with Marchesi: Maurice Strakosh offered her a 10 year contract but she accepted an offer with more generous terms from the Théâtre la Monnaie where on the 12 October 1887 made her triumphant operatic debut as Gilda in Rigoletto. Poised to launch her European career, Helen Porter Mitchell took Marchesi's advice and adopted the name Melba - a contraction of the name of her home city, Melbourne - as her stage name. Lady de Gray was a staunch ally in London at Covent Garden, and at her behest, Melba returned to star in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette in June 1889. While critics such as Bernard Shaw, Neville Cardus and John Norton questioned the depth of her vocal powers, for the most part she was highly regarded by the composers whose operas she performed.

In December 1893 Melba sang at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York opening the way for many American tours throughout her career. Later, in 1905, Melba met Oscar Hammerstein, a wilful, stubborn character who persuaded her to sing in the Opera Company he set up to rival the Metropolitan. It was the kind of alliance Melba loved. If she had agreed to be on the regular staff of the Metropolitan Opera, Melba would have had to sing the roles she was assigned, where and as directed and, she wrote, characteristically, 'No artist gives her best under those conditions. I said to myself: "I am Melba. I shall sing where and when I like and I shall sing in my own way"' [Blainey, p. 432]. An arrogant statement perhaps, but by 1908, Melba was without doubt the highest paid singer in the history of Grand Opera. As an indication of her popularity, in 1908, the Royal Albert Hall which seated 10,000 was sold out a week in advance of her performance.

Melba was concerned with leaving behind a legacy. To this end, on arrival in Fremantle in August 1911, she announced the formation of her first Australian opera company. Unable to show performances outside Sydney and Melbourne, Melba valiantly hoped to secure reduced steamboat and rail tickets so that all people might travel to the capital cities to see the grand spectacle. It was a magnificent gesture, and Madam Melba influenced and inspired thousands of first-time Opera-goers. Her earlier Australian tours of 1902, 1907 and1909 were extraordinary events in the musical life of the country and had created eager anticipation for a fully developed operatic season.

During World War I Melba dedicated herself to raising funds for the war effort. She was created a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire for raising £100,000 between 1914 and 1918. On April 12th, 1915, Melba gave her first class at the Albert Street Conservatorium in Melbourne, and by May she was teaching young women on a regular basis. These classes focused on one-to-one comments and criticism by Melba, and by establishing her specialised form of teaching so intensively she influenced a generation of Australian singers.

Melba was often attacked in the Australian press for her supposed snobbery and her excessive wealth, but the tremendous public displays of support which occurred throughout her Australian tours and at her funeral when she died in 1931 demonstrated that 'a great part of Melba's marvellous popularity is due to her prodigious personal pull. People like her … the real people. It seems to them…that she is fine, individual, human.' (Selwyn Rider, Melbourne Triad, in Radic, P. 149)

Published Resources


  • Blainey, Ann, I am Melba: a Biography, Black Inc, Melbourne, Victoria, 2008. Details
  • Magee, Adrian, Nellie Melba, the First Australian Diva, CIS Cardigan Street Publishers, Carlton, Victoria, 1995. Details
  • Melba, Nellie, Melodies and Memories, Nelson, West Melbourne, Victoria, 1980. Details
  • Melba, Nellie, Dame, Melba Method, Chappell & Co, Sydney, New South Wales, 1926. Details
  • Radic, Therese, Melba, the Voice of Australia, Macmillan, South Melbourne, Victoria, 1987. Details


Online Resources