Dame Nellie Melba, DBE

Dame Nellie Melba DBE was Australia's first opera superstar.

Honour Roll

Born Helen Porter Mitchell on 19 May, 1861, in Richmond, Victoria, Dame Nellie Melba was educated in Melbourne where she studied singing and piano. After her mother's death in 1880, the family moved to Mackay, Queensland, where she met and soon married Charles Armstrong. In 1884, following the birth of a son, George, they moved to Melbourne where Nellie intended to pursue a singing career.

Nellie made her debut on 17 May, 1884, at the Melbourne Town Hall. 'She sings like one out of ten thousand', was the opinion of one critic. In March 1886, she accompanied her father to London. An introduction to the esteemed Paris-based singing coach, Mathilde Marchesi, who recognised the potential in her voice, helped establish her career as she worked on both her voice and her social education.

Mme Marchesi also insisted she take on a suitable name, hence 'Melba' an abbreviation of her home town. Nellie made her debut as an opera singer at the Theatre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels on 13 October, 1887, playing Gilda in Rigoletto. By 1889, she had performed at Covent Garden and in Paris and was receiving public and critical acclaim. She toured the world for the next few decades and mixed with the rich and famous.

She caused a scandal in 1890 when she consorted with Phillipe, Duke of Orleans, and her husband divorced her in 1900. Nellie finally returned to newly federated Australia in 1902 for a highly successful tour of all states. The first of over 100 recordings of her singing was produced in 1904. After further success she returned again in 1909 for a 'sentimental tour' which took her far and wide into the continent.

She bought a property at Coldstream near Lilydale, Victoria, where she built Coombe Cottage and thereafter spent more time in her homeland. In 1911, she returned to head the Melba Williamson Opera Company. During the war, she helped raise around 100,000 pounds for war charities and in 1922 she staged the successful Concerts for the People in Melbourne and Sydney.

Throughout the late 1920s, she gave a series of farewell concerts around the world. She returned to Australia in ill health and died on 23 February, 1931, of septicemia. Her death was received in Australia as though she was royalty, with parliamentarians in Canberra standing with bowed heads to honour her passing.