Dame Nellie Melba
• 1861 — 1931
Often appears with
Melba was one of the most admired singers of her era, both for the beauty of her voice and for her phenomenal technique. While her recordings were both late in her career and misleading as to the size of her voice (ironically, the reason her voice sounds minuscule on many of her recordings is because it was in fact large enough that to avoid tonal distortions, the sound engineers had her stand far away from the recording equipment), they nonetheless do capture something of technique and voice. Her acting ranged from non-existent to wooden, and she frequently indulged in diva behavior, but generally it was only her snubbed colleagues who objected. She also conducted her personal life with a gusto that the tabloids of today would delight in. And, of course, there are the two dishes named after her -- Melba toast and Peach Melba.
Though she came from a musical family, she did not begin seriously thinking about a singing career until she was in her twenties; in the mid-1880s, she left her husband and went to Melbourne to study with Mary Ellen Christian and Pietro Cecchi in Melbourne, where she gave her first concerts. (Born Helen Porter Mitchell, she took her stage name from the name of the city.) In 1886, she went to Paris to study with Mathilde Marchesi, and nine months later made her operatic debut as Gilda at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in 1887, followed by performances of Lakmé and Ophelie in Thomas' Hamlet, all of which were great successes with critics and public. She was especially admired for the coloratura fireworks of mad scenes, and made her Covent Garden debut in Lucia di Lammermoor in 1888. This performance was not as well-received as her other debuts, but the next year, with the powerful sponsorship of Lady de Gray and her fine performance of Juliette, she established herself firmly with the company, returning every season until 1908, and continuing to make appearances there until her retirement. She made her Paris Opera debut in 1899 as Ophelie. Lucia was the role of her La Scala debut in 1893, as well as her Met debut in the same year. In 1896, she unwisely took on the role of Brunhilde in Wagner's Siegfried, but realizing she could ruin her voice's flexibility and coloratura by continuing, she immediately dropped the role. In 1898, she formed her own touring company, the Melba Grand Opera Company, and she later formed the Melba-Williamson company, which toured Australia.
Herman Bemberg wrote an Arthurian opera, Elaine, for her and the de Reske brothers, and she recorded one aria from it, but otherwise the work faded into obscurity after her retirement, and Saint-Saëns' Hélène, also written for her, entered even deeper obscurity. While it was not written for her, she appeared in the premiere of Mascagni's I Rantzau (only slightly less obscure during the middle and late twentieth century). She wasn't the jinx that this list might suggest -- on the contrary, she bullied the management of Covent Garden and the Met into introducing Puccini's La bohème into the repertoire, even sweetening the deal with a promise to sing some of her showpiece mad scenes from Hamlet and Lucia after the end of the opera, to make sure the audience left happy. She studied La bohème with Puccini himself.
She began her formal teaching career in Melbourne in 1915, was made a Dame of the British Empire in 1918, and gave her farewell recital at Covent Garden in 1926.