Melba, Nellie



Probably the foremost prima donna of her time. Her maiden name was Nellie Mitchell, and she was born in Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Authorities differ as to the date of her birth. Her father was a Scotch conductor, wh9 had been brought up strictly according to the principles of the Scotch Presbyterian Church; but he was fond of music, and is said to have played the violin and sung bass in the choir of his church. Her mother, who was of Spanish descent, was a good amateur pianist. Theif daughter early showed her love of music, and when she was six sang at a charity concert in the Melbourne Town Hall. She was sent to the Presbyterian Ladies' College at Melbourne, where she studied composition and harmony and took lessons on piano, violin and organ, but gave no attention to her voice and held no hope of a public musical career because of her father's intense disapproval. In 1882 she married Captain Charles Armstrong, son of Sir Archibald Armstrong, of Kings County, Ireland. It was not until after her marriage that she abandoned the idea of a career as a pianist and turned to singing. She sang three months in the Catholic Church of St. Francis at Melbourne, and, when her father became Australian Commissioner at the Colonial Exhibition in London in 1886, she accompanied him, determined to study singing. Going to Paris, she sought an interview with Madame Marchesi, who, on hearing her marvelous voice, its silvery purity and its wonderful natural trill, called to her husband that at last she had found a star. For twelve months pupil and teacher worked earnestly and carefully, becoming life friends during that time, and at the end of this short period the famous teacher pronounced her pupil ready for an operatic debut. In honor of her native city, her stage name, Melba, was chosen, and on October 12, 1887, she made her debut at the Theatre de la Monnaie at Brussels as Gilda in Rigoletto. Her supremely beautiful voice brought immediate success, although she was quite without experience, especially as an actress. In 1888 she appeared in Lucia di Lammermoor in Covent Garden, with only moderate success, owing to her lack of stage experience. In the spring of 1889 she first sang at the Paris Opera, making her debut as Ophelie in Ambroise Thomas' opera, Hamlet. She studied the roles of Marguerite and Juliette under Gounod himself, who took the greatest delight in her, and listened rapturously to her rendering of his lovely music. June 15 she sang Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden, completely captivating the London public, with whom she has increased in popularity ever since. In 1891 she went to St. Petersburg, where she received an ovation. The following year she made her debut in Milan under extraordinary circumstances. Jealous of the renown she had won in other cities before the verdict of La Scala had been given, the Milanese entertained a hostile feeling for her, which expressed itself even in threats against her life. Although unnerved by such preliminaries the diva made her appearance as Lucia, and with her first notes conquered her foes. She was given forty recalls, the final one lasting almost a half-hour, and the press extolled her singing in proportion to its former hostile criticism. In 1893 she appeared for the first time in America, making her debut at Chicago. In 1902 she returned to Australia, after sixteen years' absence, and was given an almost royal welcome. Madame Melba is not a gifted actress, but the wonderful beauty of her voice has placed her at the very head of opera-singers. It has a compass of two and a half octaves, is remarkably even and brilliant, and in flexibility  and ease of tone production is comparable to Madame Patti's. The roles in which she has most frequently appeared are Gilda; Ophelie; Juliette; Marguerite; Esmeralda; Elsa; Violetta; Rosina, the Queen, in Les Huguenots; Michaela in Carmen; Nedda in Pagliacci; Helene in the opera of that name written for her by Saint-Saens; and Mimi in Puccini's La Boheme. As a woman Madame Melba is charming. Warmhearted and generous, she has numberless times given aid to young and unknown musicians and artists, notable among whom is Puccini, whom she helped to a deserved recognition by insisting upon singing La Boheme against the wishes of her manager, bringing to the part so much appreciation and interpretative beauty that the role was soon recognized as one of her best. Among her fellow-musicians she is loved and honored for her beauty and dignity of character.