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Classical 101

Diva Dame Nellie Melba

TWO AUDIO FILES Dieters despair at munching on the dry crackers known as Melba toast, and they (we,  I)  cheat gloriously on poached peaches with ice cream called Peach Melba. But what is a Melba? Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), born Helen Porter Mitchell near Melbourne Australia, was an internationally famous soprano, known for her magical voice and technique, a spiky personality and a spicy private life. Her one and only husband was nicknamed "Kangaroo Charlie," and as befits a diva, she counted the pretender to the throne of France, Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans, among her lovers. The rumor was floated for years that she died of septicemia as the result of a botched face lift. For all that, Melba's voice was described by people who didn't like her (rival diva Mary Garden) as "like a ball of light" and as a miracle by the many people who did.  Her voice was best suited to the florid operas of Donizetti and Rossini.  But as Melba's fame grew these operas fell out of fashion, with later Verdi, Puccini and Wagner becoming the rage. Melba sang the lighter Wagner roles beautifully, but she was completely unsuited to the heroic Brunnhilde. But a challenge is a challenge and the Siegfried Brunhilde Melba sang at the Metropolitan on December 30, 1896 damned near wrecked her career. "Tell the critics I have been a fool," she croaked to the manager. "I will never do that again." She never did and she didn't have to. She recovered and continued to excel in the older operas, adding Mimi in Puccini's new La boheme as her special signature role. Mary Garden snipped, "I never saw such a fat Mimi in my life," but always added, "My God, how beautiful it was." Marvelous Melba by Ann Blainey is a new biography of this Australian born legend. It's a lousy title but a good book. Blainey goes a long way to debunking the myth that Melba was an inexperienced ingenue when she arrived at the famous Ecole Marchesi in Paris in 1885.  In fact, by her early 20s Melba was a well regarded and experienced singer in Australia with a firm technique. Marchesi polished her abilities, and favored an over development of the head voice that allowed for smooth coloratura and diamond like high notes. The high notes didn't last, but the lovely tone did, up until her final appearances in her late 60s.  Melba detested the sound of her own voice in the new fangled recordings, but she made a lot of them and they made her a very rich woman.  She sang everywhere and she was feted everywhere. When told she was beginning to resemble Queen Victoria, who had been one of her fans, Melba declared, "Shut up! ! I hated the bloody woman!" Placards were set up back stage whenever she sang: MELBA. SILENCE! SILENCE! She insisted on the highest fees in London. If she got 500 pounds a night, Caruso had to make do with 499. Many of Melba's recordings are hard to like. Still, one can catch the beauty of the tone, even if she is musically sloppy by current standards, making rubato an overindulged joke and swooping between registers the while.  Her characterizations are always rather stuck and grim faced.  But what do I know?  She sang operas by Gounod,  Puccini, Thomas and Verdi, and all of these composers admired her. This is "Sempre libera" from Verdi's La traviata, recorded in 1904. Listen to how she has to move away from the recording horn in the higher, louder passages: [audio:melba-sempre-libera2.mp3] One June 6, 1926, at the age of 65,  Melba gave her farewell performance at the Royal Opera in London. She sang scenes from three operas closely associated with her: Juliette in Romeo et Juliette, Mimi in La boheme, and Desdemona in Otello.  King George and Queen Mary attended. (Melba once said, "There are many kings, but only one Melba.") The performance was broadcast on the new BBC and recorded with electronic microphones. It was a measure of Melba's fame that no one dared object to a 65-year-old Juliet or Mimi.  And she looked every one of her years. Laugh if you like, but there was more than a hint of lovely tone left to the old diva, and her handling of one word, 'Bada',  is text book exquisite. At the end of the evening,  Melba made a speech of farewell from the stage. [audio:melba-speech1.mp3] As the theater was packing up, one hapless stage manager said, "Dame Nellie, you forgot to thank the box office" to which she gave the withering reply, "The box office should have thanked ME!" Indeed. Marvelous Melba by Ann Blainey. A bloody good read.