Dame Nellie Melba

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.

Signed photograph of Nellie Melba as Ophelia in Hamlet, c.1889 Purchased, 1998 Performing Arts Collection
Signed photograph of Dame Nellie Melba as Ophelia in Hamlet, c.1889
Purchased, 1998
Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection

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.

Cloak worn by Dame Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891.  Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth. Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection. Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.
Cloak worn by Dame Nellie Melba as Elsa in Lohengrin, c. 1891.
Designed by Jean-Phillipe Worth.
Gift of Pamela, Lady Vestey, 1977.
Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.
Photograph by Jeremy Dillon.

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.


What does the music of The Beatles mean to you? Do you remember Beatlemania in Australia? What is your favourite Beatles song?

We’ve been asking these questions of visitors to our current exhibition, The Beatles in Australia. It’s been wonderful to read through all the comments that have come flooding in. From people who attended the 1964 concerts to people weren’t born until decades later, it appears that Beatlemania is still alive and well in Melbourne today!

We’d love to hear about your experiences too – leave a comment here or head to Arts Centre Melbourne’s Facebook page to join in the conversation.




Donating items to the Performing Arts Collection


Are you thinking about donating items to the Performing Arts Collection?

Arts Centre Melbourne is very grateful to those who offer gifts of cultural material to our Collection. The Performing Arts Collection has been largely developed by generous donations from members of the general public. Material may be gifted through outright donation, bequest or through the Federal Government’s Cultural Gifts Program which provides tax deductions for the donation of highly significant cultural material.

We are obliged to make sure that every acquisition is in line with our Collection Policy and that we have the resources to properly care for and store each item. As a result, it is not always possible for us to accept donations of objects. However, in the event that we cannot accommodate your gift, we may be able to suggest an alternative recipient for you to approach, so please do contact us if you have something you would like to give.

Donation guidelines

If you wish to donate material, please fill out our Offer of Donation form which you can download here.The more information you can provide, the easier it is for us to properly consider your offer.

All offers of donation are assessed by the following criteria:

  • The material’s cultural significance
  • Relevance to our Collection Development Policy
  • The Performing Arts Collection’s current holdings of this type of material
  • The material’s physical condition
  • The material’s potential future use for research and display

Please provide your full contact details with your offer. This information is necessary for us to process the donation. If you wish to know more about how we will protect your personal details you can read our full Privacy Policy on the Arts Centre Melbourne website.

Please note that thanks to the generosity of the Australian public, we receive large numbers of donations, which can take time to consider and process. We aim to get back to you within 3 months of receiving your completed Offer of Donation form.

Things to consider before offering a donation:

  • Before offering material to the Performing Arts Collection, please discuss the matter with family members and relatives whose wishes should also be considered.
  • A donation is finalised when the donor signs a Deed of Gift. This is a legal document, and once the donation is finalised, no item can be returned to the donor.
  • We cannot guarantee the display of any donated item, but we are happy to arrange for material to be viewed by donors and their families through our Research Service.
  • Please do not send any original material to us unless we have requested it. We cannot take responsibility for unsolicited material sent to us and reserve the right to accession such unsolicited material into the collection, to return to sender if practical to do so, or to dispose of the material if it does not meet our acquisition criteria.

Download our Donation Offer Form here.  You can also download these Donation Guidelines as a PDF.

Keep Cool Melbourne!

Laurie Richards Photographic Collection, purchased 1991. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.
Laurie Richards Collection. Arts Centre Melbourne, Performing Arts Collection.

As Melbourne swelters through its fourth consecutive day over 40 degrees celsius, I was inspired to search our Collection for examples of people beating the heat!

This wonderful photograph is one of approximately 28,000 images in our Laurie Richards collection. Richards (1907-1985) was a professional photographer who worked in Melbourne during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Richards was a member of the Royal Australian Airforce Reserves when his interest in photography began, stemming from his involvement in aerial work. Early in his career he worked as a press photographer for the Adelaide Advertiser, the Argus and the Herald Sun. During his time with the Herald Sun Richards also worked as a freelance photographer. Having made a number of valuable contacts and securing a reputation through one of Melbourne’s leading newspapers, Richards established his own company in the early 1950s which operated from a ‘self-built’ studio, situated at the back of his home in Alphington. By the 1960s he employed a team of twelve photographers, with his wife Connie tending to the daily office activities of an ever-expanding enterprise.

Richards’s business specialised in advertising and public relations. His style of photography was often playful, animated and action-fuelled, capturing a variety of entertainers, presenters and audiences ‘in the moment’. Regular clients included Shell, Mobil, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, HSV 7, Hector Crawford Productions, 3DB, 3UZ, 3AW and 3KZ. While working for his television and radio clients, Richards photographed many well known celebrities, both Australian and those visiting from overseas. These included The Seekers, Graham Kennedy, John Farnham, Normie Rowe, Sir Robert Helpmann, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Fred Astaire, Sammy Davis Jnr., Danny Kaye, Gregory Peck and many more.

Free Exhibition Floor Talks

Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, 2006 Photograph by Jeff Busby
Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen in The Boy From Oz, 2006. Costumes designed by Roger Kirk.
Photograph by Jeff Busby

Looking for something cool to do during this hot Melbourne summer? Join us for a series of insightful and engaging free talks in Gallery 1 at Arts Centre Melbourne! Hosted by All That Glitters curator Margot Anderson, these talks are a rare opportunity to learn about the art of designing, making and performing in stage costume.

The Stage Wardrobe of Dame Joan Sutherland
Trish Butterworth, Costume Maker, Opera Australia
Wednesday 22 January, 1pm

The Boy From Oz and Beyond
Roger Kirk, Costume Designer
Friday 24 January, 1pm

Costume and the Dancer
Juliet Burnett, Senior Artist, The Australian Ballet
Wednesday 5 February, 1pm

These events are presented by Arts Centre Melbourne as part of the exhibition All That Glitters.
All That Glitters will be on display in Gallery 1 until 23 February 2014.

Costume Gallery – All That Glitters

This gallery showcases some of the wonderful costumes in our Performing Arts Collection. You can currently see these costumes (and many, many more!) on display at Arts Centre Melbourne in the free exhibition, All That Glitters. This exhibition celebrates the vision behind these costumes, the creativity and skill of those who created them, and the show-stopping performances that brought them to life.

All That Glitters will be on display in Gallery 1 until 23 February 2014.