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Past Images of the Month - June 2011

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MELBA, Dame Nellie (b.Melbourne, 19 May 1861; d.Sydney, 23 February 1931)

Born 150 years ago on May 19th, Melba was one of the most successful sopranos of all time. A legend in her lifetime, she is still remembered for the extraordinary purity of her tone and for the perfection and brilliance of her technique - vividly demonstrated in her extensive discography.
The daughter of Scottish parents who had emigrated to Australia, she first studied with a former Royal Academy of Music pupil of Manuel Garcia jnr. Having married an Irish sugar-plantation manager in 1882, she sang under the name 'Mrs Armstrong' before travelling to Europe at her father's expense in 1886. (The marriage was short-lived and eventually dissolved in 1900.) After a single appearance in London at the Prince's Hall, Piccadilly, in June 1886, she commenced study with Mathilde Marchesi in Paris and in the autumn of the following year under the name Melba (a reference to her home town) made a successful stage debut in Verdi's Rigoletto at the Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels. Following Gilda with four other demanding coloratura roles, she was engaged to sing Lucia at Covent Garden in May 1888 and Ophélie (in Ambroise Thomas's Hamlet) at the Paris Opéra in May 1889. Her Covent Garden debut had been less successful with the critics than with the public and it was only due to Lady Gladys de Grey, influential patron and supporter (and thenceforth one of the singer's closest friends) that Melba was induced to return to what was to become her 'artistic home'. Partnered by the de Reszke brothers, she sang Gounod's Juliette and Marguerite (both of which she had studied with the composer) to general acclaim in 1889, and for the next twenty-five years was the undisputed star of the Royal Opera House's summer seasons.

(Please click the thumbnails below to view larger image)

Postcard by the Rotary Photo Company, London, c.1900 after a photograph by Reutlinger, Paris. Melba with her friend John Gorman Ford. Photograph by Numa Blanc fils, Monte Carlo, [1904]. Melba is shown in her costume as Helen of Troy in Saint-Saëns's opera Hélène first performed in Monte Carlo, 18 February 1904. Lady Gladys de Grey, later Marchioness of Ripon (1859-1917).

Souvenir of the Performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 4 July 1893. Melba and the de Reszke brothers formed a legendary trio, active at Covent Garden and elsewhere from 1888 to 1900.

Gala programme, 7 July 1903. Gala programme, 11 June 1907. Melba's celebrated partnership with Caruso lasted from 1902 to 1913. Gala programme, 27 May 1908.

Programme, 7 May 1910. Programme, 8 May 1921. Melba sang arias from Faust, La Bohème and  Sadko, and songs by Tosti and Rachmaninov.

Advertisement from programme of  17 May 1910 above.

Melba Method. London, 1926.

In addition to Gounod, Melba worked with Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Thomas, Délibes, Massenet and Saint-Saëns on their operas; the latter's Hélène was written especially for her. A triumphant international career took her to Milan, St Petersburg, Stockholm, Vienna, Berlin and in 1893 to New York where she was was described as "at the zenith of her powers". She undertook her first Australian concert tour in 1902 and in 1911 formed the Melba-Williamson Company for performances of some of her greatest operatic roles in Sydney and Melbourne.

Melba's farewell appearance at the Royal Opera House on 8 June 1926 was attended by King George V and Queen Mary and comprised three complete acts of Roméo et Juliette and La Bohème and the opening of the last act of Otello. The Daily Telegraph commented, "no singer, not even the youngest of the day, is steadier in tone, or hits the notes, as it were, more precisely or more accurately", and described the evening as "a colossal night of music and a glorious exhibition of the noble art of singing as singing should be".