“In London there were Melba nights at Covent Garden but in the 1894–95 season in New York there was the’Melba rage’ as the New York Globe would describe her ability to fill the theatre.”
A journalist for twenty-five years, Robert Wainwright has written a number of biographies about famous Australians such as swimmer Ian Thorpe, mass murderer Martin Bryant and suffragette Muriel Matters, so it is perhaps not surprising that this time he has chosen to write about Dame Nellie Melba (Helen Porter Mitchell) who became one of the most famous singers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. She was the first Australian singer to achieve international recognition—her colourful and successful life story needs no embellishment and she could be considered the first Australian superstar in an era where famous opera singers were the idolised ‘pop-stars’ of today.
Many books have been written about Melba whose stage name was derived from her home city, ‘Melbourne’; ‘Nellie’ is the diminutive of Helen. She is remembered today for many reasons, apart from her fame as an opera diva: her portrait is on the Australia $100 note (along with Sir John Monash); French chef Escoffier invented some special desserts named for her; there is a Nellie Melba Museum at Lilydale, Victoria; a Melba Collection at the Victorian Arts Centre and her home, Coombe Cottage, in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, is still open to visitors. As seen above, the striking portrait on the cover of this book is by Rupert Bunny and is held by the National Gallery of Victoria.
Wainwright’s book, Nellie: The Life and Loves of Nellie Melba differs from preceding biographies in that the author concentrates on Melba’s brief affair with Philippe, Duc d’Orléans (future claimant to the throne of France), and builds the book around the one surviving letter written by the Duke to Nellie some thirty years after their first meeting. Other biographers have dismissed this affair as a ‘youthful flirtation’ but Wainwright says he believes ‘they loved each other and were forced apart by the expectations of others’—he writes that the letter reveals ‘a shared longing’ for what might have been. This letter, written in 1919, nearly thirty years after their first meeting, begins the book and Wainwright imagines the details of their love affair and its aftermath. He supports his imagination with newspaper reports and these are clearly acknowledged in the text.
Melba met Philippe in 1890, through her patron, Lady Gladys de Grey, who was a member of the glittering ‘Marlborough Set’ surrounding the Prince of Wales. Melba was 29 and he was only 21. He was engaged to be married to his cousin, Princess Marguerite of Orléans, and Melba had finally separated from her husband, Charles Armstrong. Her son George was living with her at the time. Melba had recently established herself as the leading lyric soprano at Covent Garden and she would go on to achieve success in France and the rest of Europe, as well as in the US. It was an exciting time for Nellie Melba. News of her fame soon reached Australia as did the newspaper gossip about her ‘scandalous’ affair—which they both officially denied. In 1892 Charles Armstrong filed for divorce naming the Duke as co-respondent; Armstrong eventually dropped the case, but the Duke by then had left for a two-year African safari and in 1893 Melba went to the US. They did not resume their relationship.
Wainwright writes colourfully of the social life around the Prince of Wales and Lady de Grey, and paints a vivid picture of the lives of the elite in 1890s London. It was the end of the century (the Belle Époque in France) and London was flourishing:
‘There was a myriad of entertainment venues, from the fireworks at (the) Crystal Palace to parlour singalongs, flower shows, marching bands and the ‘new’ Madame Tussauds in Baker Street. But the Italian opera at Covent Garden remained a place for the well-heeled.’
There is a useful Bibliography at the end of the book and the author acknowledges ‘the many biographies that have come before, in particular the fine work of Therese Radic (Melba:The Voice of Australia, 1986) and Ann Blainey (I Am Melba, 2008)’. He also specificlly mentions Melba: A Family Memoir, written in 1996 by Nellie’s granddaughter Pamela Vestey, and Nellie’s autobiography, Melodies and Memories (1925)’. Melba’s grand-daughter, Lady Pamela Vestey, wrote that her grandmother’s affair with the Duc d’Orléans was a ‘youthful infatuation’.
Wainwight thanks the Nellie Melba Museum for ‘help with the photos’—there are sixteen pages of excellent black and white photos, many of them conveying the splendour of Melba’s theatrical costumes and her personal finery during the extravagant fin de siècle period. These contrast sharply with the post-war fashions seen in the later photographs.
NAA: A1200, L38247
Not a great deal is said about Melba’s voice or the quality of her performances, although her meeting with singing teacher Mathilde Marchesi is described. This is a love story and the author has said he prefers to concentrate more on ‘the woman behind the performer’. Nellie: the Life and Loves of Nellie Melba is not a book for musicians seeking to follow the story of the development of a voice or to learn about the diva’s outstanding performances; rather, it is a book for the general reader, telling a colourful and romantic version of the life of this Australian woman who fought hard to become one of the best-known singers in the world.
Melba’s voice was recorded towards the end of her career. Recording technology was still rather primitive (some recordings were on waxed cylinders) but, for readers who would like to gain some idea of the sound of Melba’s voice, here are some links:
Nellie Melba 1904 Verdi (1813-1901) “Caro nome” from Rigoletto
Nellie Melba 1904 Donizetti Lucia di Lammermoor (Mad Scene) “Del ciel clemente un riso”
A biography by Percy Colson who knew Melba during her lifetime is Melba: An Unconventional Biography (Grayson and Grayson, London, 1932). This book may be read free at