Peachy. Dame Nellie Melba was born 150 years ago today.

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.

IF YOU’D LIKE TO DO A GUEST BLOG – GET IN TOUCH! Excuse the capitalised shouting…

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London’s first recording studios

In an earlier blog entry we touched upon (EMI predecessor) The Gramophone Company’s first recording studio which was located two doors up from Rules Restaurant at 31 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden. This would have been the very first recording studio in London, pre-dating Abbey Road Studios by 33 years!

Those kind people at the EMI Archive Trust have dug out a photo of the studio as it looked upon opening in 1898.

London's first recording studio

The lady sitting at the studio piano is Amy Williams who was the Recording Department secretary and also accompanied the vocalists. This role is the equivalent of a modern day A&R assistant getting to play on all the label’s records! You can see that the piano is raised so that its sound can be captured in the (one and only one!) recording horn which itself would be adjusted to the height of a singer’s mouth.

I’m not sure who the man is that is standing behind the recording horn. It’s not Gaisberg as he does not have a the trademark Gaisberg moustache. Fred is most likely behind the camera as he was a keen photographer.

You can see that the room is not particularly uplifting. Fred described it thus: “Yes, grimy was the word for it. The smoking room of the old Coburn Hotel was our improvised studio. There stood the recording machine on a high stand: from this projected a long, thin trumpet into which the artist sang. Close by, on a high movable platform, was an upright piano.”

31 Maiden Lane was then being used as a hotel (The Coburn Hotel) which was clearly run down when The Gramophone Company took over its basement to use as a recording studio. Its now being used a pizza restaurant called Fire and Stone.

31 Maiden Lane - now Fire & Stone