Today marks the 153rd birthday of Australia’s most famous opera singer, Dame Nellie Melba (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931). Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Melbourne, later changing her name in honour her native city. After studying singing in her home town she travelled to Paris in 1886. Her talent was recognised by the influential Mathilde Marchesi who became her teacher and ardent supporter.
Melba made her operatic debut in 1887 at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. This was to be the beginning of an auspicious international career.
Melba performed in the great opera houses of the world – the Paris Opera, La Scala in Milan, the Metropolitan Opera House and Manhattan Opera House in New York, and most notably the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in London. She became Covent Garden’s prima donna, returning season after season. Throughout her career, Melba worked with prominent musicians and composers including, Enrico Caruso, Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi.
Melba remained a loyal Australian and Melbourne was always her home. She returned to her beloved country for several triumphant concert tours and eventually collaborated with J.C. Williamson Theatres to form the Melba-Williamson Opera Company, bringing great opera to the people of Australia.
During World War I, Melba began teaching at Melbourne’s Albert Street Conservatorium (later the Melba Memorial Conservatorium), encouraging and promoting local talent. She also performed in many charity concerts to raise funds for the war effort. For this patriotic work, Melba was awarded a D.B.E. in 1918.
Arts Centre Melbourne’s Performing Arts Collection holds a significant collection of performance costumes and accessories worn by the singer, which were donated by her grand-daughter Lady Pamela Vestey in 1977. Melba’s most famous operas are represented, including Otello, Rigoletto, La Traviata, Faust, La Boheme, Romeo and Juliet and I Pagliacci. The most elaborate item is a gold cloak, hand-painted and sewn with jewels, which was worn by Melba in Lohengrin and designed for her by the Paris-based couturier, Jean-Phillipe Worth.
Since the time of this generous donation, many additions have been made to the Performing Arts Collection. Original photographs, many of which are signed by Dame Nellie, illustrate her life and career. Programmes, some printed on silk, trace her Australian and international opera performances and concerts. Letters and cards written by Melba to friends and pupils provide an insight into the personality of this great performer. Opera scores (including Madame Butterfly signed by Puccini), books, monogrammed items, and records are also part of this important collection.