Today marks the 150th birthday of Helen Porter Mitchell. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, on May 19th 1861 and was destined to become the leading opera singer in the world during the “Golden Age of Opera”. She also became a household name – Dame Nellie Melba.
There were a number of special qualities that separated Nellie from her contemporaries:
With the help of three teachers – Ellen Christian, Pietro Cecchi and Mathilde Marchesi – and the requisite “10,000 hours”, she developed a technique that enabled her to perform at the highest level over four full decades. “Salvatore, viens,” Marchesi called to her husband on first hearing the girl, “j’ai trouvé une étoile.”
In an age when married women were expected to give up work, she decided that instead the husband should do.
She had a wonderful sense of pitch and always sang in tune.
She learned many of her greatest roles with the composers themselves – Verdi, Massenet, Gounod, Puccini among them. And she promoted avant-garde songs by Debussy, Duparc, Chausson and others.
She took responsibility at all stages for managing her own career, bringing in a series of helpers, but never delegating the authority.
She was a brilliant entrepreneur, always ready to do what was necessary to maintain her profile and fill houses. “There are plenty of duchesses, but only one Melba,” she said.
“If you wish to understand me, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian,” she wrote. This attitude enabled her to break through the rigid barriers of British society of her day, speaking plainly with everyone at every level.
She was a catalyst in building the newly-emerging recording industry, negotiating a pioneering royalty arrangement.
When she died in Sydney in 1931, her coffin was carried by special train to Melbourne, stopping at towns and villages on the way so that crowds of people could pay their respects. Her grave at Lilydale carries a brief phrase from her most famous role, Mimì in La bohème: “Addio, senza rancor.” Farewell, no hard feelings.
Here she is at 65, singing that very aria , recorded live at her Farewell from Covent Garden in 1926:
This is our first guest blog. It’s by Roger Neil and you can see his blog here.
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