Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), who was born in Melbourne, was the daughter of David Mitchell, a building constructor with musical interests. Helen Porter Mitchell was educated at a boarding school in Richmond and the Presbyterian Ladies’ College, where she studied singing and the piano. In 1882, while living in Mackay, Queensland, she married Charles Armstrong, but the marriage was unhappy and she returned to Melbourne in 1884. She made her debut as a soprano at a Liedertafel concert in Melbourne Town Hall on 17 May 1884 and received glowing reviews. In 1886 she accompanied her father to London and she became a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi in Paris. She adopted the name ‘Melba’, as a tribute to her birthplace, and was introduced to various composers, especially Gounod, who coached her in opera roles. She made her debut as an opera singer in Brussels in 1887, at Covent Garden in 1888 and in Paris in 1889.
For the next twenty years Melba was one of the most famous opera singers in the world, although her repertoire was limited to a relatively small number of roles. She was acclaimed by critics and audiences in London, Paris, Monte Carlo, Brussels, Milan, Vienna, Stockholm, Berlin, St Petersburg, New York, Chicago and many other cities. She sang before kings, emperors and presidents and moved easily among the highest ranks of European society. London was her home and she reigned supreme at Covent Garden. In 1902 she made a triumphant return to Australia; her journey across the country was like a royal progress. She returned in 1909 and on this visit bought a property near Lilydale in Victoria, where she built Coombe Cottage.
During World War I Melba mostly lived in Melbourne, although she made three concert tours of North America. She raised large sums for the war effort and charities. Keen to establish a school of bel canto in Australia, she taught singing at the Albert Street Conservatorium, which was later to be named after her. In 1918 she was appointed a Dame of the British Empire. Melba returned to England after the War, but the status of Covent Garden was declining, her voice was ageing, and she made fewer appearances. J.C. Williamson Ltd, which had organised a triumphant Melba tour of Australia in 1911, arranged and financed further tours in 1924 and 1928. In 1926 Melba gave her farewell performance in Covent Garden and her last Australian concert took place in Geelong in 1928.
From 1952 onwards the Library has bought small groups of letters and photographs of Nellie Melba from antiquarian booksellers or at auctions, mainly in England. In 1960 three photographs were lent for copying by George Armstrong, the son of Melba. Among the more substantial acquisitions were papers of John Lemmone, bought from a Sydney dealer in 1994, letters of Melba to Lady Susan Fitzclarence, sold by Christie’s in 1998, and photographs and letters from Melba to her sister Isabelle, sold by Christie’s in 2001.
The papers of Mathilde Marchesi were purchased in 1969 from her grandson, Baron Leopold Podhragy of Vienna. The papers of Fritz Hart were donated by his wife Marvell Hart in 1970. In 2007 music scores and manuscripts that had belonged to Melba were purchased from the Melba Conservatorium of Music in Melbourne.
The oil painting of Melba by M.H. Livingston was bought from the Joseph Brown Gallery in Melbourne in 1987.
The Library holds 59 volumes of scores, bound in leather, which had belonged to Melba’s personal collection. Most are vocal scores for operas and oratorios, including works by Bach, Bizet, Donizetti, Gounod, Mascagni, Meyerbeer, Mozart, Rossini, Verdi and Wagner. Some of the scores have working notes and other transcriptions. A few contain notes to Melba from the composers: Edgar Tinel, Raoul Pugno, Albert Cahen, Luigi Mancinelli, Ruggiero Leoncavallo and Camille Saint-Saens. The collection, which was previously owned by the Melba Conservatorium of Music, also includes a manuscript of two cadenzas for soprano and violin written by Joseph Joachim for Melba, possibly for use in Mozart’s Il Re Pastore. Further material from the Melba Conservatorium archives is expected in 2009.
The sheet music collection contains many songs dedicated to Melba or sung by her. One example is Chanson d’automne, with words by Paul Verlaine and music by Rachel Pitt-Rivers, dedicated to Melba and with a picture of her on the cover.
In 1959 the Library approached George Armstrong, Melba’s son, about her personal papers, but it appeared that no personal archive had survived. However, many of her friends had kept letters and photographs and some of these collections have been sold or donated to libraries in Australia, Britain and the United States. The National Library holds numerous letters of Melba, either as single items, small groups, or as part of the archives of friends and colleagues. The following are some of the more substantial collections:
Letters from Melba to Henry Russell, undated.
Papers of the Marchesi Family, including letters from Melba to Mathilde and Blanche Marchesi, photographs, programs, a scrapbook (1887-89), an address by Melba to students at the Guildhall School of Music (1911), books, and a typescript by Leopold Podhragy, ‘Melba and the Marchesis’.
Papers of Fritz Hart, composer and director of the Albert Street Conservatorium, including many letters from Melba (c.1915-27).
Papers of John Lemmone, business manager of Melba, including letters and cards from Melba, financial statements, photographs and newspaper cuttings (1911-28).
Two cutting books covering the 1924 J.C.Williamson-Dame Nellie Melba opera season in Sydney and Melbourne.
Letters (1908-17), in a particularly lively style, from Melba to her friend Lady Susan Fitzclarence, together with menus autographed by Melba and fellow diners (1917), programs, cuttings, and a typescript by Ailwyn Best on his meeting with Melba.
Letters (1895-1923) from Melba to her sister Isabella Patterson (‘Tib’), portrait photographs, postcards, and two commemorative programs printed on cloth.
The papers of Isabella Patterson (MS 9561) include a silk evening bag that belonged to Melba. The music manuscripts acquired from the Melba Conservatorium (MS 10021) were accompanied by Melba’s silk fan inscribed with the signatures of 25 artists.
The Library holds a portrait of Melba, painted in oils by Mary Livingston in about 1880. Livingston, who had been a pupil of Louis Buvelot, taught art at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College. There are a large number of photographs taken at various times in Melba’s adult life, including studio portraits, depictions of Melba in particular operatic roles, and photographs of family and social occasions. Other photographs include views of Coombe Cottage and an album of photographs recording Melba’s return to the family home at Lilydale in 1902.
The Library holds two scrapbooks documenting opera in Australia from 1924 to 1932 and in particular the 1924 and 1928 J.C. Williamson-Dame Nellie Melba opera seasons. Related papers can be found in scrapbooks kept in the J.C. Williamson Collection in the PROMPT Collection.
There are numerous books containing anecdotes and accounts of Melba’s life and career. The following are some of the more substantial works dealing specifically with her life:
Blainey, Ann, I am Melba: a biography, 2008
Colson, Percy, Melba: an unconventional biography, 1932
Hetherington, John, Melba, a biography, 1967
McDonald, Roger, Melba, 1988
Mackenzie, Barbara and Mackenzie, Findlay, Singers of Australia: from Melba to Sutherland, 1967
Melba, Nellie, Melodies and memories, 1925
Moran, William R., Nellie Melba, a contemporary review, 1985
Murphy, Agnes G., Melba: a biography, 1909
Radic, Therese, Melba, the voice of Australia, 1986
Vestey, Pamela, Melba: a family memoir, 1996
Wechsberg, Joseph, Red plush and black velvet: the story of Dame Nellie Melba and her times, 1961
The music scores, manuscripts and various collections of personal papers are held in the Manuscripts Collection. The music scores have been catalogued individually and the personal papers have been catalogued at the collection level. Many of the photographs are filed with letters and personal papers, while other photographs are held in the Pictures Collection. The portrait by Mary Livingston is also in the Pictures Collection (R10444). Other music scores associated with Melba are held in the Music Collection at various locations. The books are shelved in the Australian Collection and the ephemera is housed in the PROMPT Collection.
Other collections of letters and photographs of Nellie Melba are held in the La Trobe Library (State Library of Victoria) and the Mitchell Library (State Library of New South Wales). The La Trobe Library holds the papers of John Hetherington, the biographer of Melba. The Museum of Lilydale has many photographs and artifacts associated with Melba.
The National Gallery of Victoria holds the full-length portrait of Nellie Melba painted by Rupert Bunny in 1902. The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra holds a portrait sketch of Melba painted by Hugh Ramsay in 1902. The National Film and Sound Archive in Canberra has many recordings of Melba dating from 1901 to 1926.
Davidson, Jim, Melba, Dame Nellie (1861-1931), Australian Dictionary of Biography online
Gustavson, Royston, Melba, Dame Nellie, in Oxford Companion to Australian Music, edited by Warren Bebbington, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 366-67
Stone, Richard, 'Dearest Tib': letters from Nellie Melba, National Library of Australia News, vol. 13 (2), Nov. 2002, pp. 8-10