Melba the toast of the North
AT THE end of July Townsville’s own Australian Festival of Chamber Music celebrates its Silver Jubilee, a milestone in the history of music in the North.
Coincidentally, it was in July 106 years ago, that the Northern Miner announced another “great event in the history of music in Charters Towers”. It was the visit of Dame Nellie Melba and her concert party.
It was a great event in Townsville as well. Everyone was agog at the news that the great soprano and her party were booked to stay at Queen’s Hotel and to appear at His Majesty’s Theatre ( now Dance North).
Melba sang some of her best known solos, with flute obbligato by John Lemmone, accompanied by Leslie Whittle at the piano. Though John Lemmone was overshadowed by the great Nellie Melba, he was one of the first Australian musicians to achieve world recognition. His appearance in the North was almost as noteworthy as hers.
The son of a Greek migrant, Lemmone was born at Ballarat, and in 1884 made his debut in Melbourne in the same concert as Nellie Armstrong who changed her name to Melba. They became firm friends, a friendship that lasted for the rest of Melba’s life. In fact they not only started their careers together, but also appeared together for their last performances in 1927.
Lemmone was well known for his association with Melba, but he also toured the world with great singers such as Adelina Patti, and was recognised as one of the greatest flautists of his time. Upon his return to Australia in the 1890s, he established his own touring company and started business as a concert manager. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography, he introduced to Australia several singers such as Marie Neville, and in 1904 masterminded the tour of the great pianist Paderewski.
When Melba toured in Australia, Lemmone managed her tours and always accompanied her on the flute. Supporting artists on the North Queensland tour were the brilliant Australian pianist and composer Una Bourne and the baritone Frederick Ranelow. They, along with the accompanist Frederick Whittle, were later well known in England, Australia and New Zealand.
It is not surprising that the concerts received tumultuous receptions in Charters Towers and Townsville. Today advances in technology allow us to listen to Melba and Lemmone merely by typing the name “Melba” into that marvellous website Google. We can also attend regular performances by visiting artists, as well as our own local artists and the Barrier Reef Orchestra.
Dame Nellie Melba at Coombe Cottage in Coldstream, 1916.