Bi­og­ra­phy of a voice

Nel­lie Melba’s life, loves and mythol­ogy con­tinue to cap­ti­vate us, writes Matthew West­wood

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

NEL­LIE Melba be­longs to a dis­tant era of opera and singing, but the cel­e­brated so­prano’s voice is still within cooee. She was one of the ear­li­est singers, along with En­rico Caruso, to ex­ploit the new tech­nolo­gies of the gramo­phone and ra­dio in the early 20th cen­tury. The gramo­phone en­larged Melba’s al­ready con­sid­er­able fame and wealth, and left us valu­able doc­u­ments of her singing.

An ideal com­pan­ion to Ann Blainey’s new, metic­u­lously re­searched bi­og­ra­phy of the singer would be the EMI Clas­sics CD of Melba singing arias and songs. It in­cludes excerpts from Melba’s fi­nal per­for­mances — as Mimi in La Bo­heme , her sig­na­ture role — at Lon­don’s Royal Opera House in 1926. By then she was 65, old enough to be Mimi’s grand­mother, but her voice sounds fresh, even girl­ish. Es­pe­cially no­tice­able is its un­forced qual­ity, as if it is rid­ing on a col­umn of air.

Melba had stud­ied the role with Gi­a­como Puc­cini, visit­ing the com­poser in his north­ern Ital­ian home Lucca about the time he was work­ing on Tosca . In her mem­oir, Melodies and Mem­o­ries , she claimed she had six weeks of lessons with Puc­cini, who marked her copy of the score ‘‘ in his neat lit­tle hand­writ­ing’’. On the ev­i­dence of Blainey’s re­search, she was prob­a­bly ex­ag­ger­at­ing the ex­tent of Puc­cini’s in­struc­tion, but it’s not far- fetched to as­sume that when we hear Melba as Mimi, her singing bears some re­sem­blance to what the com­poser wanted.

Blainey’s book de­tails the soap opera of Melba’s private life and is care­ful to put Melba myths into per­spec­tive. No less in­ter­est­ing for opera lovers and stu­dents of singing, it is also a bi­og­ra­phy of a voice: how Melba shaped it into an in­stru­ment of art and cap­i­tal, and main­tained it dur­ing a four- decade ca­reer.

‘‘ The thing that re­ally dom­i­nates ( singers) is the voice,’’ Blainey says on the phone from Melbourne, her own voice hoarse from laryn­gi­tis. ‘‘ And un­less you un­der­stand that, you don’t un­der­stand how other things stand in re­la­tion to the voice in their lives, the sac­ri­fices they have to make. They don’t think like you and I think. If you’re a top singer try­ing to stay at the top, the pres­sure on you must be ter­ri­ble.’’

Blainey, who is mar­ried to his­to­rian Ge­of­frey Blainey, grew up lis­ten­ing to records of Melba and stud­ied singing for a time, learn­ing the bel canto method, the tech­nique Melba stud­ied in Melbourne and with renowned teacher Mathilde March­esi in Paris.

‘‘ It’s build­ing up the mus­cles in the lower part of the torso,’’ Blainey says, ex­plain­ing the foun­da­tions of bel canto.

‘‘ All the work is done in the lower part of the body. Up around the throat is sup­posed to be to­tally re­laxed. You don’t sing from the throat, you re­ally sing from the chest, and just put a gen­tle stream of air over the vo­cal cords.’’

Un­der March­esi’s guid­ance, the young singer — born He­len Porter Mitchell in Melbourne on May 19, 1861 — was trans­formed into Melba. When she made her pro­fes­sional de­but as Gilda in Rigo­letto , at La Mon­naie in Brus­sels in Oc­to­ber 1887, the opera house was fes­tooned with ban­ners pro­claim­ing Madame Melba. She was a tri­umph. Her ca­reer took her to all the im­por­tant opera houses: she made her de­but at the Paris Opera as Ophe­lie in Am­broise Thomas’s Ham­let , and at the Royal Opera House, La Scala in Mi­lan and the Metropoli­tan in New York in the ti­tle role of Lu­cia di Lam­mer­moor .

It is dif­fi­cult to give an in­di­ca­tion, by mod­ern stan­dards, of the celebrity Melba achieved; Blainey writes that she was the most fa­mous singer in the world. She worked in­cred­i­bly hard: in one seven- month pe­riod in the US she gave 46 per­for­mances at the Met and al­most an­other 50 on a con­cert tour.

She also grew fab­u­lously rich, able to de­mand from im­pre­sario Os­car Ham­mer­stein ( grand­fa­ther of The Sound of Mu­sic li­bret­tist Ham­mer­stein) $ US3000 a per­for­mance, with a guar­an­tee of $ US20,000. ‘‘ I come high,’’ she told him. She loved furs and diva bling: her jew­ellery was once re­ported to be worth $ US2.5 mil­lion.

Melba worked with the im­por­tant com­posers of her era. As well as Puc­cini, she came into con­tact with Giuseppe Verdi, Thomas, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint- Saens, who wrote his one- act opera He­lene for her. She learned from Charles Gounod her parts in his op­eras Faust , Mireille and Romeo et Juli­ette .

From Blainey’s book a pic­ture emerges of Melba as Aus­tralian mu­sic’s link with the belle epoque of Euro­pean opera.

‘‘ Melba once said, ‘ I put Aus­tralia on the map,’ ’’ Blainey says. ‘‘ And in many ways she did. Here is some­one with tremen­dous tech­nique and voice, and mostly trained in Aus­tralia, sud­denly ap­pear­ing on the opera stages of the world. It must have as­ton­ished peo­ple.’’

Blainey’s pre­vi­ous books in­clude a bi­og­ra­phy of the Bri­tish Kem­ble sis­ters, ac­tor Fanny and singer Ade­laide. She spent five years re­search­ing Melba, much of that time in li­braries, sift­ing through news­pa­per re­ports and match­ing snip­pets of in­for­ma­tion like a jig­saw puzzle. ‘‘ You can piece things to­gether, even the Court Cir­cu­lar, be­cause Melba gets into the Court Cir­cu­lar even­tu­ally, as though she’s roy­alty.’’

An un­likely but fruit­ful source was the Mackay Mer­cury : like Melbourne, the Queens­land sugar town claimed a part in the Melba story and re­ported ex­ten­sively on Melba’s ca­reer in the north­ern hemi­sphere. Melba met her hus­band, Char­lie Arm­strong, in Mackay and they had a tu­mul­tuous, prob­a­bly vi­o­lent, re­la­tion­ship. They had a son, Ge­orge, and when Melba and Arm­strong sep­a­rated af­ter a few years, cus­tody of Ge­orge be­came a painful bat­tle.

Melba had other ro­man­tic at­tach­ments, in­clud­ing a long­stand­ing but nec­es­sar­ily se­cret re­la­tion­ship with Philippe, duke of Or­leans, an heir to the French throne. An­other lover was Aus­tralian play­wright Had­don Cham­bers. Joseph Joachim, a vi­o­lin vir­tu­oso, wooed her as­sid­u­ously.

Blainey says her book in­cludes fresh de­tails about Melba’s sep­a­ra­tion from Arm­strong. Be­cause the cel­e­brated so­prano mixed in aris­to­cratic cir­cles it was be­lieved, er­ro­neously, that the Bri­tish royal fam­ily, and even the French gov­ern­ment, had tried to stop Melba’s di­vorce.

Melba had ap­plied for a ju­di­cial sep­a­ra­tion from Arm­strong, Blainey says, but Arm­strong coun­tered with a di­vorce suit, nam­ing Philippe as co- re­spon­dent and al­leg­ing adul­tery.

‘‘ Melba’s and the duke’s very clever lawyers bring out the fact that Char­lie has built a house near Mackay,’’ she says. ‘‘ There­fore he is deemed to have res­i­dence in Mackay, and if you are not a res­i­dent of the Bri­tish Isles, you can­not bring a di­vorce ac­tion in Eng­land.’’

Arm­strong later ap­plied again for di­vorce, this time suc­cess­fully, on grounds of de­ser­tion.

Other myths have per­sisted about Melba and Blainey at­tempts to set them straight.

‘‘ Sing ’ em muck,’’ Melba is re­ported to have said, ap­par­ently in dis­dain for un­so­phis­ti­cated fans. The re­mark was quoted in a bi­og­ra­phy of Bri­tish con­tralto Clara Butt and deleted from Aus­tralian copies. Melba may well have ut­tered those words, but more likely in frus­tra­tion than con­tempt: she wanted to vary her reper­toire with new mu­sic, but her au­di­ences were more en­thu­si­as­tic for the sen­ti­men­tal songs they knew.

Other bi­og­ra­phers of Melba have writ­ten that the singer en­joyed ro­bust health through most of her ca­reer. Blainey dis­putes this: Melba con­tracted pneu­mo­nia in 1904 and was pe­ri­od­i­cally un­well from then on. The prob­lems in her per­sonal life also caused an­guish, but it is tes­ta­ment to Melba’s dis­ci­pline that she was able to keep her pro­fes­sional life on track. She can­celled few per­for­mances.

The fa­mously long farewell may have seemed in­dul­gent to Aus­tralians, but un­hur­ried with­drawals from the stage were nor­mal for en­ter­tain­ers of the time. ‘‘ That was what di­vas did,’’ Blainey says. ‘‘ They like say­ing good­bye and their fans like say­ing good­bye.’’

Ev­i­dence for the fi­nal myth, that Melba died from sep­ti­caemia due to cos­metic surgery, is scant. She ap­pears to have con­tracted an in­fec­tion on her fi­nal jour­ney from Europe to Aus­tralia in 1930 and her health went into rapid de­cline. A nun at St Vin­cent’s Hospi­tal in Syd­ney, where Melba died, wrote that the singer had ‘‘ in­ci­sions on each side of her face’’, but Blainey says Melba’s fam­ily de­nied she had a facelift, and the nun’s tes­ti­mony, writ­ten 30 years af­ter Melba’s death, is ‘‘ not en­tirely per­sua­sive’’.

Not in ques­tion is the pub­lic dis­play of mourn­ing for Melba. Her cof­fin was car­ried by train from Syd­ney to Melbourne, and crowds gath­ered at coun­try towns to pay re­spects. At Scots Church in Melbourne, 5000 peo­ple filed past her cof­fin, and mourn­ers filled the streets.

What man­ner of wo­man was Melba? She could be very funny, even rib­ald, but knew how to be­have in ev­ery so­cial sit­u­a­tion, Blainey says. Her im­pe­ri­ous man­ner didn’t lead her into diva- like tantrums. Of course, she was a supreme artist and prob­a­bly in­her­ited from her Scots fa­ther her will to suc­ceed.

‘‘ She had tremen­dous self- dis­ci­pline,’’ Blainey says. ‘‘ She was a per­son of great courage. Of­ten she was fac­ing ter­ri­ble ad­ver­si­ties, but she man­aged to turn her mind away from th­ese and con­cen­trate on singing.’’ I amMelba, by Ann Blainey, is pub­lished by Black Inc on Mon­day.

Supreme artist with at­ti­tude: An early por­trait shows Nel­lie Melba’s de­ter­mi­na­tion

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