The 19th May 2011 marks the birth of one of Australia’s greatest performers, Dame Nellie Melba.
Perhaps the most internationally renowned Australian performer in the period before the Second World War, Dame Nellie Melba was recognised as one of the worlds greatest sopranos with her fame living on to the present day. Born Helen Porter Mitchell in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond in 1861 she made her professional singing debut in Melbourne in 1884. Travelling to London in 1886 with her father she made her opera debut in Brussels later the following year. After further successful roles in Paris she returned to London to perform at Convent Garden in 1889 in the opera Romeo et Juliette to great acclaim.
It was not until 1902 that Melba returned to Australia for her first national concert tour and over the following years she made several visits to her home country. In 1909 she performed not only in Australian capital cities but also travelled to many regional areas. Forming the Melba-Williamson Opera Company, Melba was in Australia again from 1911 and from this point, especially during World War 1, spent more time in Australia until the war ended when she went back to perform again in Europe.
This recently acquired concert program is of particular relevance to Sydney and relates to the period when Melba came back to Australia in 1921. Realising the high price of concert tickets she decided to give a series of “Concerts for the People” in both Melbourne and Sydney during 1922 at the reduced cost of five shillings and sixpence to allow more people to hear her sing. Sixteen concerts at Melbourne Town Hall saw about 30,000 people attend (1). The Sydney concerts, held at the Sydney Town Hall, were also anticipated to be a resounding success with the Town Hall capacity being for 3,000 patrons. The fourteen Sydney concerts held between 21 March and 28th April 1922 were often to packed houses. Of the second concert a journalist noted (2).
She is not a singer whose voice varies much, good health and a perfect production, combining to keep it in almost unvarying perfection.
Later in the series the Sydney Morning Herald reported on the 8 April that, based on the current bookings, there would be 35,000 people attending the concerts. By this date there were still six concerts in the series to go. At her second final Sydney concert Melba announced that it was her 29th People’s Concert (including the Melbourne concerts) and that she had sung to over 100,000 people (3). At the conclusion of the final concert of the series on 28 April she told the audience (4).
“I have never enjoyed singing as much in my whole career as I have at these ‘Concerts for the People’
The following years saw Melba performing both in Europe and Australia, her final Australian performances of her career being in late 1928. Dame Nellie Melba died in Sydney on 23 February 1931.
The Powerhouse Museum’s collection includes several objects linked with Dame Nellie Melba including photographs, audio recordings and concert programs such as the recently acquired program above.
There are also several pieces of costume worn by Melba both in her off-stage life, such as an evening jacket above, and in the operatic role of Marguerite in ‘Faust’ (98/26/1 & 98/26/2 Gifts of Sydney Opera House Trust, 1998) shown at the beginning of this post.
Other objects in the collection with a Melba connection include a ceremonial sword owned by Melba’s father when appointed a member of the Victorian Commission attending the Indian and Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886 (H7080 gift of Keith Wood, 1962). Another interesting Melba-related artefact in the Powerhouse Museum’s collection shows Dame Nellie’s generosity – a Bechstein baby grand piano dating from 1924 which was given to the donor’s parents as a wedding gift (94/270/1 gift of Anne Fairbairn, 1994).
Other cultural institutions around the country are also celebrating Melba’s birthday, The Arts Centre, Melbourne, the The Melba Online Museum lists many events in Melbourne and the The Australian National Film & Sound Archive has links to audio recordings of Melba singing in their collection.
1 Sydney Morning Herald 22/3/1922 p.14
2 Sydney Morning Herald 24/3/1922 p.11
3 Sydney Morning Herald 25/4/1922, p.8
4 Sydney Morning Herald 29/4/1922 p.13
K. Brisbane; Entertaining Australia (Currency Press, Sydney, 1991)
J. Davidson; Melba, Dame Nellie (1861-1931)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography – Online Edition
J. Hetherington; Melba (FW Cheshire, Melbourne, 1967)
B & F MacKenzie; Singers of Australia from Melba to Sutherland (Lansdowne Press, Melbourne, 1967)
Newspaper articles on Dame Nellie Melba at TROVE