Dame Nellie Melba - Australia’s “Greatest Daughter”
As her birthday is coming up in just a few days we thought it would be fitting to feature Australia's "greatest daughter" in our first ever article for the Musical Melbourne series. Each month we'll be taking you on a journey of discovery - revealing Melbourne's rich musical heritage and the city's wealth of musical treasures. What better way to start than with one of our most loved and celebrated divas. Dame Nellie Melba, a world famous operatic soprano, was actually born Helen Porter Mitchell in 1861, in inner city Melbourne.
At that time, Melbourne was flourishing economically as wealth continued to flood in from the nearby goldfields and wool production. This economic growth meant Melbourne was quickly transforming from a small settlement into a major city under the rule of the British empire. The 1860s saw rapid development throughout the city in the form of housing, schools, churches and public buildings, including theatres and music halls. As a result of her love for her hometown, Helen Porter Mitchell decided to adopt the stage name ‘Melba’ - which was a condensed version of “Melbourne”.
A lifetime of music
A skilled pianist and organist, Melba inherited her parents’ passion for music. Her father played the violin and sang bass, her mother played the piano, harp and organ. It was from her mother that Melba had her first music lessons. Melba started playing the piano around three years old and was only six years old she sang at the opening of the Richmond Town Hall in Melbourne.
Following a stint at a boarding school in Richmond, Melba was lucky enough to be given the most advanced education available to women at the time, entering as a day-girl at the Presbyterian Ladies' College. Here Melba pursued her interests in singing and piano. Her teacher at the time was Madame Ellen Christian, who had been a student of the famous Spanish singer Manuel Garcia.
In Melba’s teenage years, she studied the organ, harmony and composition. She also received singing lessons from Madame Lucy Chambers who was an internationally acclaimed opera singer. Melba later studied under Signor Pietro Cecchi, an Italian tenor and respected teacher in Melbourne before moving to Europe to develop her singing career overseas.
Australia’s first classical musician to wow the world
Melba was the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical vocalist. Melba sang in all the major opera houses of Europe and the United States. She made her debut as an opera singer at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels in 1887, as the character Gilda in the opera Rigoletto. Melba also studied in Paris in 1886 before moving to London where she became the leading lyric soprano at the prestigious Covent Garden in 1888. Melba performed in many other European cities, including at La Scala in Milan, before debuting at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 1893.
By the age of 28, Melba was already a superstar. She had won over critics and captivated audiences across Europe - from Brussels, Paris to London. Her outstanding reputation earned her an invitation to perform in Queen Victoria's private suite at Windsor Castle on July 4, 1890. Amongst the audience were the renowned Polish singer siblings Jean and Edouard de Reszke, the French baritone Jean Lassalle, the Italian composer-accompanist Luigi Mancinelli and the Queen herself - accompanied by her daughter Victoria, Empress Frederick of Germany.
Adored by Australians who referred to her at the time as “our greatest daughter”, Dame Nellie Melba was said to be the most famous woman in the world at the height of her success.
An Australian icon immortalised on the $100 note
Such was the success of Dame Nellie Melba and her significance in Australian history that the current issue of the Australian one-hundred-dollar note features a portrait of her. Her 1902 homecoming concert in Australia and New Zealand is also depicted on the bank note. She was widely recognised as the most accomplished and renowned soprano of her time. Police had to work hard to control the huge adoring crowds that gathered just to see her enter the Melbourne Town Hall for her first concert back home.
Very few musicians can boast having a dessert named after them. Nellie Melba’s fame and success reached so far and wide that the legendary chef Auguste Escoffier, of the Savoy Hotel in London where Melba stayed at while performing, invented the Peach Melba to honour the famous Australian soprano. This classic dessert is made with ice cream, poached peaches and raspberry sauce, and has become an Australian favourite which graces the menus of renowned restaurants not only in the land down under but in also in eateries right around the world.
The Melba Estate
Dame Nellie Melba is arguably one of Australia’s most famous opera singers and she holds a special place in the heart of many Melbournians. But Melba was not only renowned for her musical talents, she was also well-known for her sense of style and her refined taste in art, fashion and decor. Less than 50 kilometres from Melbourne, in the picturesque Yarra Valley, is the famous Melba Estate - the former home of the opera singer. Surrounded by seven acres of beautiful gardens, the estate has become a popular tourist attraction. The property houses a gallery which pays homage to the life of Dame Nellie Melba and her unforgettable role in Australian history. The gallery also features a display of jewellery, fashion items and works of art from Dame Nellie Melba’s private collection.