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Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931)

Nellie Melba, by Harold Cazneaux, 1922

Nellie Melba, by Harold Cazneaux, 1922

National Library of Australia, 2720602

Dame Nellie Melba, famous for more than 40 years as the greatest singer of the lyric stage of her generation, and as one of the most distinguished of Australians, died yesterday at 4.40 p.m. at St. Vincent's private hospital, Sydney, where she had been a patient for about five weeks.

The news of the fatal termination of her long illness will excite profound regret in the great art centres of the world abroad, and will bring a sense of personal loss to her fellow countrymen and countrywomen of Australia, a land for which, in her most notable triumphs abroad, she retained a passionate affection, and of which she was invariably a sturdy champion.

Dame Nellie's illness dated from about a year ago, when, in a letter from Cairo to her old friend, Mr. John Lemmone, she described her health as very unsatisfactory, and wrote of the favourable results she expected from the treatment she was receiving from a German doctor. Later letters from Baden and Paris revealed no definite improvement in her condition, and at length she decided to return to Australia, in the hope that the air of her native land would restore her to health. She was very ill on arriving at Fremantle, and upon reaching Melbourne entered Mount St. Evins private hospital. Then, having spent Christmas at Coombe Cottage, she came to Sydney in January with the view of spending a holiday at Moss Vale with her sister, Mrs. Box. But after a few days at Moss Vale, she was obliged to return to Sydney, where she entered St. Vincent's private hospital.

The course of her illness was followed with sympathetic interest in all parts of the world, and constant messages were received at the hospital. Three cable messages came from the King and Queen; the Governor and Lady Game made continual inquiries as to the progress of the distinguished patient, and among the cablegrams was one yesterday from Viscount Novar, formerly Governor-General of Australia. Dame Nellie, notwithstanding the exhausting nature of her illness, was most thoughtful in her consideration for the nurses, and one touching incident related is that a fortnight ago she sang to one of them part of Gounod's Ave Maria. Canon Lea, of St. Mark's, Darling Point, visited her on Tuesday last, and again yesterday morning.

Dame Nellie was semi-conscious for the greater part of Sunday night and yesterday, but was able to recognise her son, Mr. George Armstrong, and one or two intimate friends. Her passing was very peaceful. Those present when she died were Mrs. Box, Mrs. Mitchell, Mr. George Armstrong and his wife, Mrs. Lempriere and her daughter, Miss Helen Lempriere, and Mr. John Lemmone. 

By the death of Dame Nellie Melba Australia loses her most representative daughter, and the world a singer who followed Adelina Patti as the reigning operatic soprano of her generation, and her century, in Europe. Was there ever a more wonderful realisation of Desdemona than Melba achieved by the ethereal purity and youthful charm of her voice in the Willow Song and the Ave Maria of that touching Death Scene? It was this strangely pure and youthful timbre that made her world famous.

The Melba voice, which ranged from B below the lines to the highest F with a singularly even and silvery quality throughout, thus showing the slightest possible difference in the registers, was essentially feminine in its fascination in that respect it did not reflect in any way the character of its wonderful possessor, who was almost virile in her resolute determination to succeed at all costs, and her shrewd business talents.

Apart from her vocal career, Melba stood forth at a period when Australia was little thought of in London, as a woman proud of her country.

Helen Porter Armstrong was the eldest daughter of David Mitchell, a stonemason from Forfarshire, who emigrated with his young wife at the age of 28 years to Melbourne. He arrived there in 1857, and began business as a building contractor in Burnley street, Burnley, near Richmond. He made an immense fortune as a cement manufacturer, and station owner, and died in 1916 at the age of 87. Nellie Mitchell, who was born on May 19, 1861, came of musical parents on both sides. Her father had a fine bass voice, and played the violin creditably; her mother played the piano, harp, and organ. Little Nellie, at three or four years of age, was fond of sitting down to the piano, and when six she sang at the Richmond Town Hall Shells of Ocean, with Comin' thro' the Rye as encore. In her early 'teens she studied the organ, harmony, and composition, and was taught singing by Madame Lucy Chambers, a local celebrity, who had sung in opera throughout Italy. Later, she studied in Melbourne under Signor Cecchi, an Italian tenor.

A turning point in Nellie Mitchell's career was due to her appearance at a Government House reception given by the Marquis of Normanby (Governor of Victoria), at which, between her piano solos, she sang some simple songs to her own accompaniment. Lady Normanby came to her afterwards and said "Dear child, you play brilliantly, but you sing much better than you play. Cultivate vour voice, and you will have a great career."

The date of her first important appearance in Melbourne was stated by Herr Otto Vogt, many years later (during his long residence in Sydney), to be at the Indian Famine Fund Concert at the Melbourne Town Hall on November 10, 1877. Vogt directed this concert at which Nellie Mitchell was solo organist, performing Batiste's Andante in G, and "playing people out" with Scotson Clarke's Marche aux Flambeaux. Melba herself stated in London that she did not begin to study singing earnestly until after her marriage. This took place in 1882 with Captain Charles Nisbet Frederick Armstrong (Royal Artillery), the sixth son of Sir Archibald Armstrong, Bart., of King's County, Ireland. The union turned out unhappily, and there was a long separation, followed ultimately by a divorce. There was one son, George.

Mrs. Armstrong made her Sydney debut at the Theatre Royal with Kruse as star on July 4, 1885. Four or five concerts were rapidly given in the big old-fashioned playhouse, and the season was more or less of a failure. The young unknown soprano was warmly praised by the Press, and that her talents were recognised was shown by the fact that the Sydney Liedertafel committee and the Sydney Philharmonic committee adopted the unusual course of sending 600 miles to Melbourne to invite her for Christmas engagements.

Mrs Armstrong's first experiences in London were discouraging. Signor Alberto Randegger the famous teacher was dubious as to her chances of success and Sir Arthur Sullivan was unable at the moment to do more than promise her the role of Yum-Yum if she cared to wait a year for it! William Ganz, confident in the newcomer's voice and style introduced her at the Chevalier Emil Bach's pupils' concert at Prince's Hall, and this little success was followed by another at the dinner of the Royal General Theatrical Fund (Sir Augustus Harris in the chair when she made a veritable sensation in the Gounod-Bach Ave Maria. Ganz then arranged an interview with Can Rosa, who rather fortunately as it all turned out, forgot to keep the appointment, and the future Melba left for Paris, and entered the Marchesi Academy.

Madame Marchesi heard her sing, and—wept with joy and enthusiasm. There was only one slight 'break" in the long-extended compass the great teacher declared, and only 10 months later, on October 15, 1887, the soprano appeared as Gilda at the Theatre de la Monnaie Brussels under her stage-name as "Madame Melba".

At the end of the Brussels season Melba was engaged by Sir Augustus Harris for a Covent Garden debut as Lucia on May 24, 1888. Press and public were delighted several critics pronouncing the voice the best since Patti. There was an exception however in the case of the Athenaeum critic who remarked 'But we do not for one moment imagine that Madame Melba will ever hold the highest position in her profession." So far from that the newcomer sang every season from that day forward under a guarantee from Harris of 12 appearances a month at least became the idol of the operatic world and in 1913 celebrated the twenty-fifth anniversary of her original debut without having missed a single summer. Covent Garden was in festival guise on the occasion and the diva sang Mimi (which she had "created" on the same stage in 1899) to the Rodolfo of John McCormack.

Melba's debut at the Paris Opera was as Ophelia in 1889 to the Hamlet of the French baritone Lassalle; in 1891 she visited Petrograd, at the invitation of the Czar, with Jean and Edouard de Reszke (the great Polish tenor and basso, who usually sang with her in Romeo and Juliet); and in 1892, and later, she triumphed in two seasons at La Scala, and toured all Italy. In 1893 she made her American debut at the World's Fair Opera House, Chicago, and from that time onwards spent many winters in starring at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Besides the usual lyric repertoire in Italian opera, the singer appeared as Elsa at Covent Garden. In America she made the mistake of essaying the heavy dramatic role of Brunnhilde in Siegfried—the one and only failure of her long career. She created Nedda in I Pagliacci for Landon; appeared at the Handel Festival in 1894: and in 1904 created the name part in Saint-Saens' opera, Helene, which was written especially for her.

One of the greatest events in Melba's life, and so referred to by her in the London Press, was her return to Australia in 1902, after an absence of 16 years. Opening in Melbourne on September 27, and in Sydney on October 11, the diva with the all conquering air and the voice of youthful charm carried all before her. The four concerts at the Sydney Town Hall (£1/1/, 10/6, and 5/) realised £9000 within a few pounds, and was always claimed by the great singer as a world's record.

In September, 1907, Melba was again in this country, where she remained until February, 1908, touring with Andrew Black (the English baritone) and Una Bourne (pianist), and then resumed at Covent Garden, making her second appearance there in May as Desdemona to Zenatello's Othello. At the same time she endowed two Melba cots at the London Hospital with £2000, the proceeds of her gala celebration of her twentieth season. After the usual winter opera engagement in New York, she gave 16 concerts in New Zealand, and was back again in Sydney in June 1909, with Una Bourne, Frederick Ranalow (Baritone), and an orchestra under Slapoffski. The overwhelming Australian support at high prices never faltered; and at her farewell in August the great singer reappeared with the Royal Philharmonic Society of Sydney (under Joseph Bradley) after an interval of 24 years.

In partnership with J. C. Williamson, theatrical manager, and with her old friend, John Lemmone, to scour Europe in search of artists, she brought to achievement one of her cherished ambitions—a star opera season in Australia. In Sydney this wonderful season opened in September, 1911, at Her Majesty's Theatre, where 52 performances were given, with a 12-night return season near the close of the year. In Melbourne the "Melba nights" touched £1800 a night, and the gross receipts for the lost week were £8600; but the season was not so long as at the somewhat smaller Sydney playhouse. Melba and the Williamson firm equally divided £30,000 profits. In March, 1912, a concert in Melbourne realised £1000 as a donation to the Melba Hall in the Melbourne University Conservatorium.

Early in 1914 Melba was in Paris with the Boston Opera Company; then came a tour of 60 concerts in America, with Kubelik (violinist) and Burke (basso), and a farewell at Covent Garden before the King and Queen. The almost immediate declaration of war against Germany stirred the great singer's patriotism to its depths. She at once returned to her own country, and devoted nearly five years to raising huge funds for Red Cross and other war purposes, chiefly in Australia, but also in New Zealand and Canada, and part of her time in America. One of her great concerts with the Sydney Philharmonic realised £1890; in Adelaide, £1387; at little Healesville, near Lilydale, £200; at Ballarat; £800, Geelong £1660; for the Belgian Fund £6100, for the Polish Fund, £6382.

At the end of 1915 Melba sang at Toronto and at Ottowa for the Red Cross, and during her stay with the Duke and Duchess of Connaught was decorated with the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. This tour raised large sums for the Red Cross, followed on the way back by £410 at Suva, and £530 on board ship, On her arrival in Sydney Melba almost at once raised £2540 at her Russian Red Cross matinee at Her Majesty's Theatre. In 1917, at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium, the diva raised £4200 for the Red Cross. Early in 1918 she realised £5000 at Boston for the Halifax Disaster Fund, £2500 for the Red Cross in New York, and £5000 more at Philadelphia. These quotations are merely her principal war successes. The same year she was created Dame Nellie Melba, and achieved the sum of £40,000 in Australia, £20,000 in Canada, and a huge sum in America by her numerous patriotic efforts. In 1919 she gave a great farewell concert at the Sydney Town Hall, supported by the Sydney Madrigal Society, under Arundel Orchard, Andrew Black, Leila Doubleday (violinist), and Francis de Bourgingnon, (pianist). Mr. Lemmone, who acted as manager, fell ill the same day, and the great singer hurriedly organised a benefit concert for January 14, by which she realised for him £2088/13/-another of her many "records." A few days later Melba sailed for London. Her departure was at the cabled request of King George to sing at the peace celebrations of 1919. On her arrival in London she opened the May season of Italian opera at Covent Garden, and sang occasionally throughout starring also as Juliet on the closing night in July.

During the latter part of her still active career the diva's visits to her home in Australia became more frequent, and after her serious illness at Monte Carlo, during a period when Covent Garden was in darkness, the great singer reached Sydney in 1921, again, after a great tour of America. Her season in August and November were with Una Bourne (pianist), and John Lemmone, in several fine concerts at which she was supported bv the New South Wales State Orchestra. In 1922 "Melba's People's Concerts" created world records for attendances, both in Melbourne and in Sydney. The same programme was repeated nightly at 16 concerts in Melbourne, at which 35,000 tickets were sold at the uniform price of 5/6 a seat only, while of the Sydney Town Hall, which is much larger, approximately the same number of people crowded in at 11 concerts (3300 at each concert). The support with orchestra was as before.

The central incidents of her stay in 1923 in London were her appearances at Covent Garden with the British National Opera Company, including nine or ten Australian singers headed by Florence Austral and Beatrice Miranda, and in that way she generously recuperated the meagre finances of the organisation. Dame Nellie Melba meanwhile assisted the J. C. Williamson management to assemble new artists for a second Melba Opera Company in Australia, after an interval of 12 years. Mr Nevin Tait, of this firm, and Mr Henry Russell the art director of the venture, assisted her to form the company, and the season was opened at His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne, with Melba in La Boheme on March 29, 1924. It was with this opera, with the famous singer again as Mimi, that the Sydney season began on June 21. It concluded with a matinee on September 5. Among the other prominent artists were Toti dal Monte, Lina Scavizzi, Dino Borgioli, and Apollo Granforte. The third opera season in which Melba and the J. C. Williamson management were associated in Australia was that of 1928. The company beginning in Melbourne, appeared in Sydney on July 5, with a sterling performance of Aida, in which the principal roles were sustained by Arangi-Lombardi, Zinetti, Merli, and Granforte. The casts of this company, which brought Puccini's last opera Turandot, to Australia, included also Toti dal Monte, Scavizzi, Hina Spani. Minghetti, Rossi Morelli, and Atttori.

Dame Nellie Melba's last public oppearance in Sydney was with this company, when she sang on August 7, 1928, in her old role of Mimi in the second and third acts of La Boheme, and as Desdemona in a scene from Otello, which included the Willow Song and the Ave Maria. Her voice surprisingly retained its purity and freshness, and her insight, superb judgment in the art of bel canto, and effortless ease, were as delightful as ever. The packed house gave her a great reception. "I am not very happy unless I am singing to you." said Dame Nellie, in a brief speech at the curtain fall, in acknowledgement of the enthusiasm.

Dame Nellie Melba had been ill ever since her return to Australia, but the original infection, paratyphoid, from which she was suffering, had cleared up. However, she was run down in general health, and common germs, found generally in boils and pimples, which have a natural pre-disposition to affect the skin only got into her system and ultimately caused her death.

It was explained last night by one of the doctors who attended the diva, that these germs on the skin were harmless in normal cases, but were worse than typhoid germs when they managed to enter the system. There was nothing mysterious about the disease. When persons were in ill-health and their power of resistance was low, the germs became dangerous. Tests had been made of Dame Nellie's blood, but on each occasion it was found to be practically sterile, and a culture could not be obtained. Her kidneys and a gland in her neck were affected, and finally the muscles of her heart.

The arrangements for the funeral are not yet complete, but it is probable that the interment, which is to be at Lilydale Cemetery, near Coombe Cottage, in Victoria, will take place on Thursday morning. The remains will be privately conveyed from the hospital to the Melbourne express this evening and upon their arrival in Melbourne there will be a service at Scots Church, Collins-street, where Melba sang in the choir as a girl and where her father also sang for many years.

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Citation details

'Melba, Dame Nellie (1861–1931)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Nellie Melba, by Harold Cazneaux, 1922

Nellie Melba, by Harold Cazneaux, 1922

National Library of Australia, 2720602

Dame Nellie Melba singing Home, Sweet Home
British Library
15 June 1920