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