Young Nellie Mitchell was a prankster. When a Scottish minister visited her home in Australia, her parents asked her to play a hymn for him on the piano. Instead, Nellie played a sea shanty (sailors’ song) called “Can’t You Dance the Polka?”
Helen Porter Mitchell, nicknamed “Nellie” by her family, often got into trouble during her childhood, avoiding the cold showers at her boarding school by standing under an umbrella and waking her family with a nighttime rendition of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” on the piano. She was not just a frivolous girl, however, but a natural musician who learned to sing and to play musical instruments with ease. One day her talent, study, and hard work would make her one of the most famous Australians of the early 1900’s—a great operatic soprano who performed on stages throughout the world.
Nellie was born on May 19, 1861, in the Melbourne suburb of Richmond. She was performing in local concerts by the age of 6, singing or playing the piano, or sometimes both. She hoped to have a musical career, expecting to play the piano professionally. Gradually she came to realize that her best chance for success lay in her voice. In December 1882, Nellie married an Australian man from a prominent Irish family, Charles Armstrong. His skill at boxing had earned him the nickname Kangaroo Charlie. Charlie and Nellie quarreled often during their marriage, and she stated later that he had physically abused her.
Nellie gave birth to a son late in 1883, but she was determined to have a career rather than to be simply a housewife and mother. When her father traveled to London in 1886, Nellie, her husband, and their son accompanied him. She took this opportunity to travel to Paris as well, hoping to study singing there with a famous French teacher. The teacher immediately recognized her talent and accepted her as a student. She and her teacher chose “Nellie Melba” as her stage name, taking the name “Melba” from the city of Melbourne. They thought such a name would be easy for European audiences to remember.
Though Melba had been singing professionally since 1884 in Australia, giving recitals and concerts, she made her operatic debut in Europe in 1887. Her first operatic performance took place in Brussels, Belgium, where she sang the leading soprano role of Gilda in Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto. Her performance was a great success. Melba’s voice throughout her career was noted for its even quality over a range of almost three octaves and for its pure, crystal-like sound.
Melba performed at the famous opera houses of Covent Garden in London and La Scala in Milan. She sang in Paris; Stockholm; St. Petersburg, Russia; and Vienna, becoming acquainted with aristocrats, royalty, and such famous composers as Charles Gounod. Though Melba sometimes suffered from stage fright, she reveled in her acclaimed performances, stating, “It is applause I live for.
Despite Melba’s professional success and friendships with the powerful, her marriage was unhappy, and she and her husband spent much of their time living apart. In 1891 she began a romantic relationship with Philippe, Duke of Orléans. Upon hearing of the affair, Melba’s husband petitioned for divorce, and he later took their son with him to the United States. Melba did not see her son again for 11 years.
Melba made her operatic debut in the United States in 1893. In 1902 she returned to Australia to perform throughout that nation and in New Zealand. Melba was interested enough in the new technologies of the day to record her voice for the gramophone in the early 1900’s. Although she said the recordings sounded like “scratching and screeching” and supposedly wanted them destroyed, at least some of her recordings survived and are available today.
During World War I (1914-1918), Melba toured the United States and helped raise funds for war charities. King George V made her a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1918. In the final years of her career, she toured in Europe and in Australia. Nellie Melba died on Feb. 23, 1931, after developing an infection from facial surgery. Her funeral in Melbourne was a huge event, with crowds lining the streets as Melba’s coffin was driven by. Both Melba toast and the dessert peach Melba were named after her.