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Dame Nellie Melba left us 90 years ago

Michael McLaren

Michael is joined by Sue Thompson, President of the Lilydale & District Historical Society, regarding the life and legacy of Dame Nellie Melba who died 90 years ago today.


Dame Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May 1861 in Melbourne, the daughter of David Mitchell, a building constructor with musical interests.


She studied singing in Melbourne making a modest success in performances and while there took the pseudonym “Melba”, from Melbourne, her hometown.


After a brief and unsuccessful marriage, Melba moved to Europe in search of a singing career.  Failing to find engagements in London in 1886, she studied in Paris and soon made a great success there and in Brussels.


Returning to London she quickly established herself as the leading lyric soprano at Covent Garden from 1888 and soon achieved further success in Paris and elsewhere in Europe, then later at the Metropolitan Opera in New York debuting in 1893.


Her repertoire was small; in her whole career she sang no more than 25 roles and was closely identified with only ten. She was known for her performances in French and Italian opera, but sang little German opera.


During the First World War, Melba raised large sums for war charities. Returning to Australia frequently during the 20th century, singing in opera and concerts, she had a house built for her near Melbourne and was active in the teaching of singing at the Melbourne Conservatorium.


Continuing to sing until the last months of her life, Melba made a large number of “farewell” appearances.


Her death in Australia on 23rd February 1931 was headline news across the English-speaking world and her funeral was a major national event.


Featured on the Aussie $100 note, Dame Nellie Melba was one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and the early 20th century and the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician.

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Michael McLaren