ARMSTRONG, Helen Porter (Dame Nellie MELBA), (1861-1931)


ARMSTRONG, Helen Porter (Dame Nellie MELBA), (1861-1931)
soprano singer
was born at Burnley-street, Richmond, a suburb of Melbourne, on 19 May 1861. She was the third child of David Mitchell, a well-known and successful Melbourne contractor, and his wife Isabella Ann Dow. Both parents were musical, her father having a good bass voice; her mother played the piano, harp and organ skilfully. Two of her mother's sisters had voices of unusual beauty. The child lived in a musical atmosphere, and at six years of age sang at a school concert. Her first singing lessons came from an aunt, but afterwards she was sent to the Presbyterian Ladies' College, Melbourne, where she received some lessons from Madame Christian, a good teacher of the period; but more of her time was given to the piano and organ. She was full of health and spirits, which not infrequently led her into trouble with her teachers; there is a tradition that there was some feeling of relief when she left the school. In 1881 her mother died and in the following year she paid a visit to Queensland, where she met Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong, youngest son of Sir Archibald Armstrong, Bart. They were married at Brisbane on 22 December 1882. In the following year a son was born to her, and when the child was two months old she went back to her father's house and never returned to her husband. She had received some training in singing from Signor Pietro Cecchi, a retired Italian singer, but her special talent was considered to be her piano playing. However, having sung and played one evening at government house, the Marchioness of Normanby, wife of the governor of the period, told her that although she played brilliantly, she sang better and that if she gave up the piano for singing she would become famous. Mrs Armstrong resumed her lessons from Cecchi, and on 17 May 1884, singing as an amateur at a concert given at Melbourne for the benefit of Herr Elsasser, a local musician, she was received with great enthusiasm.
During the next two years she made many appearances at concerts, and towards the end of 1885 was engaged as principal soprano at St Francis's church, Melbourne, but a provincial concert tour undertaken at this period had so little success that in some cases the receipts did not cover the expenses. Early in 1886 her father was appointed Victorian commissioner to the Indian and Colonial exhibition to be held in London, and on 11 March she sailed with her father and her little son to Europe, with the intention of studying for a career in grand opera.
Mrs Armstrong had brought letters of introduction with her, but Sir Hubert Parry would not break his rule against hearing students in private, and although Sir Arthur Sullivan gave her a hearing, the whole measure of his encouragement was that if she would work hard for a year he might be able to give her a small part in one of his operas. Wilhelm Ganz was favourably impressed, but she sang twice at concerts in London without arousing much interest. Other disappointments were met with and it was decided that she should go to Paris and present a letter from one of Marchesi's former pupils, Madame Elise Wiedermann, wife of the Austro-Hungarian consul at Melbourne. When she arrived an appointment was made and after hearing her sing Marchesi rushed out of the room to tell her husband that she had at last found a star. Coming back she told Mrs Armstrong that if she would study seriously for one year she would make something extraordinary of her. Lessons began at once, but although Mrs Armstrong had an allowance from her father and lived economically, she was often short of money. In December 1886 at a concert given at her teacher's home she sang for the first time under the name of Madame Melba, and always afterwards was known by that name. A few months later Maurice Strakosch, a well-known impresario of the period, heard her singing at Marchesi's house, and obtained Melba's signature to a contract which would have tied her to him for 10 years at a quite inadequate salary. When the directors of the Théatre de la Monnaie at Brussels offered to engage Melba to sing in Rigoletto Marchesi promised to make the necessary arrangements with Strakosch. However, he would not agree, and a week before the performance Strakosch was invoking the law to prevent her appearance. He, however, died suddenly on 9 October 1887 and on the evening of the thirteenth Melba made her first appearance in grand opera. Her success was immediate, and she was acclaimed as a great singer. She was treated with generosity by the directors of the theatre, and in her first season also took the leading part in Traviata, Lucia di Lammermoor, Delibes's Lakmé, and Ambrose Thomas's Hamlet. On 24 May 1888 she appeared at Covent Garden in Lucia di Lammermoor. The critics were comparatively lukewarm, and although the public showed some appreciation of her work Melba was glad to be back in Brussels in October repeating the triumphs that had begun 12 months before. In February 1889 she sang Juliet in Gounod's Romeo and Juliet and in May made her first appearance at the Opera House, Paris, as Ophelia in Hamlet. After the fourth act she was recalled three times and there was a scene of almost unparalleled enthusiasm. In June she reappeared at Covent Garden in Rigoletto and Romeo and Juliet and found her position much advanced. Moreover Jean de Reszke had been the Romeo and Edouard de Reszke the friar, great singers with whom she was always in perfect sympathy. A season in Paris followed where Melba was fortunate in receiving coaching from Gounod for the part of Juliet, and kindly suggestions from Sara Bernhardt in the acting of Marguerite in Faust. Her fame was now established; for many years she sang in every season at Covent Garden, and she was equally welcome in the continental cities from St Petersburg to Palermo. In 1893 she went to the United States and, though her first performances did not make much stir, by the end of the season it was realized that she had acquired a popularity little short of that of Patti in her best period. In the following year she sang at the Handel Festival at the Crystal Palace, but although her voice carried well in the huge building, she decided she would never sing there again. In the succeeding years Melba had fresh triumphs in the United States and Europe, and in September 1902 she returned to Australia and gave a series of concerts, which were everywhere received with the greatest enthusiasm. In 1907 she paid a holiday visit to Australia, and gave a short series of concerts at Melbourne and Sydney about the end of that year. Henceforth her time was divided between Australia and Europe. in 1911 she brought an excellent opera company to Australia, and in 1913 she gave a series of lessons at the university conservatorium of music at Melbourne. The Melba Hall at this conservatorium was the result of a performance given by the singer. In 1914 she was associated with the Albert Street Conservatorium at Melbourne, and during the war years she raised some £60,000 for the Red Cross by her efforts. In March 1924 she began a final Australian opera season at Melbourne and Sydney. She spent most of 1925 in Europe and in that year published a volume of reminiscences, Melodies and Memories. In June 1926 she made her final appearance at Covent Garden at a concert to a large audience, which included King George V and Queen Mary. In May 1927 she sang the national anthem at the opening of federal parliament house at Canberra by the Duke and Duchess of York. Her final appearance in Australia was at a concert at Geelong, Victoria, in November 1928. Returning to London soon afterwards she lived there until November 1930, and falling into bad health, again made her way to Australia. No improvement took place and she died at Sydney on 23 February 1931. She left a son and a granddaughter. She was created D.B.E. in 1918 and G.B.E. in 1927. Her will was proved at approximately £200,000. Many annuities and legacies were left to relations, friends and employees. £8000 was placed on trust to provide a scholarship at the Albert Street Conservatorium, Melbourne, and the residue of the estate went to her son, his wife and their daughter. She was buried at Lilydale some 20 miles from Melbourne. Her portrait by Longstaff and a marble bust by Mackennal are at the national gallery, Melbourne.
Melba was of moderate height with a good figure which she held so well that she suggested tallness. Her features were regular and she had no difficulty in looking the parts of Juliet, Marguerite and Ophelia. She became masterful with success and on occasions she could be temperamental; like most artists she had her share of vanity, and was not free from jealousy. But she was generous to young artists, sang much for charity, and more than once helped struggling institutions such as the British National Opera Company. Her voice had a remarkable evenness through a compass of two and a half octaves, her production was natural and perfect, and she sang florid passages with a suggestion of complete case and restraint. She had been taught by Marchesi the value of never forcing the voice, and this enabled her to preserve its remarkable freshness and purity for far longer than the usual period. She had a repertoire of 25 operas, and in a good proportion of these she had no rival. Her voice must be ranked among the great voices of all time.
The Argus, Melbourne, 25 May 1861, 24 February 1931 and following days; The Times, 24 February 1931; Agnes G. Murphy, Melba: a Biography; Nellie Melba, Melodies and Memories; P. Colson, Melba. An Unconventional Biography, interesting for its account of her art, but Melba's age is overstated by two years throughout the book; Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians; P. Mennell, The Dictionary of Australasian Biography; Burke's Peerage, etc., 1931; Beverley Nichols, Evensong. The author of this novel was secretary to Melba for a period, and the character of "Irela" was probably based on her, but it would be unwise to regard it as more than a caricature.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • Nellie Melba — Büste im Royal Opera House, Covent Gar …   Deutsch Wikipedia

  • Nellie Melba — Portrait of Melba by Henry Walter Barnett Dame Nellie Melba GBE (19 May 1861 – 23 February 1931), born Helen Nellie Porter Mitchell, was an Australian operatic soprano. She became one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian Era and… …   Wikipedia

  • Melba, Dame Nellie — orig. Helen Porter Mitchell born May 19, 1861, Richmond, near Melbourne, Austl. died Feb. 23, 1931, Sydney Australian soprano. After study with Mathilde Marchesi (1821–1913) in Paris, she debuted in Brussels in Rigoletto (1887), and in the next… …   Universalium

  • Melba — /ˈmɛlbə/ (say melbuh) noun 1. Dame Nellie (Helen Porter Armstrong, born Mitchell), 1861–1931, Australian soprano. –phrase 2. do a Melba, to make many farewell appearances. {Phrase Origin: from the number of farewell concerts presented by Dame… …   Australian English dictionary

  • Melba —   [ melbə], Dame (seit 1918) Nellie, eigentlich Helen Porter Armstrong [ ɑːmstrɔȖ], australische Sängerin (Koloratursopran), * Richmond (bei Melbourne) 19. 5. 1861, ✝ Sydney 23. 2. 1931; feierte 1887 1926 in allen internationalen Musikmetropolen… …   Universal-Lexikon

  • Melba — [mel′bə] Dame Nellie ( Helen Porter Mitchell Armstrong) 1861 1931; Austral. soprano …   English World dictionary

  • Melba — /mel beuh/, n. 1. (Dame) Nellie (Helen Porter Mitchell Armstrong), 1861 1931, Australian operatic soprano. 2. a female given name. * * * …   Universalium

  • Melba — Mel•ba [[t]ˈmɛl bə[/t]] n. big (Dame) Nellie (Helen Porter Mitchell Armstrong), 1861–1931, Australian soprano …   From formal English to slang

  • Australia — /aw strayl yeuh/, n. 1. a continent SE of Asia, between the Indian and the Pacific oceans. 18,438,824; 2,948,366 sq. mi. (7,636,270 sq. km). 2. Commonwealth of, a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, consisting of the federated states and… …   Universalium


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