The most famous woman in the world today might be Secretary of State Hillary Clinton…Queen Elizabeth…Michelle Obama…or a U.S. Supreme Court justice.
But 100 years ago, thanks to discrimination, there were few famous women.The most famous woman in the world at that time might have been an opera singer, Nellie Melba (1861-1931).
And yet she is almost totally forgotten by the general public. Melba toast and peach Melba, invented by the famous chef Escoffier, were named after her, and in her day she was probably as famous as Enrico Caruso.
Some things you may not know about her:
She was Australian, and her real name was Helen Porter Mitchell. She was born in Australia, and invented the name “Melba” from the city of Melbourne.
When a famous voice teacher, Mathilde Marchesi of Paris, heard Melba sing for her, she awakened her husband to tell him, excitedly, “At last I have found a star!”
Marchesi was considered the best voice teacher in Paris. Marchesi taught her pupils to concentrate on singing, not acting. As a result, one critic wrote that when Melba wanted to express deep emotion, she raised one arm; profound emotion, two arms.
Her French wasn’t good, but she had an agile, sweet voice with a marvelous trill. Leo Delibes, who wrote “Lakme,” said that she could sing his opera in French, Italian, German, or Chinese — so long as it was she who sang it! Charles Gounod taught her to sing three of his operas, “Faust,” “Mireille,” and “Romeo and Juliette.” Sarah Bernhardt herself gave Melba acting lessons regarding her role as Marguerite in “Faust.” Puccini helped her learn “La Boheme.” She also met Richard Strauss and Leoncavallo.
Her marriage to a young Australian turned out badly — he took their young son away, and she didn’t see him for 11 years. She later had a notorious affair with a French duke — and, supposedly, many other affairs. A recent biographer, Ann Blainey, writes that because she was young, vigorous, and attractive, “It would be surprising if she did not have an active sex life.”
On board a ship, at mealtime she was served some jelly — which was soft. Said she, allegedly, there are two things I like firm, and jelly is one of them.
Her singing was variable. Many people praised her to the skies. W.J. Henderson, a perceptive New York critic, said that when she sang a note, “it was little short of marvellous.” (When his lover, also a music critic, died, Henderson killed himself.) A Russian critic wrote that she was like a canary who had taken lessons from the best nightingale. Audiences loved her, too — she received so many curtain calls after a performance in “Lohengrin” that a chair was brought into the wings for her to sit on between curtain calls. After another performance, a newspaper wrote, “Women wept hysterically, and men shouted themselves hoarse.” (The term invented for this: Melbamania.)The wealthy presented her with elaborate and expensive jewelry.
But there were doubters. Gustav Mahler said that she sang in a mechanical way, and he would rather listen to a clarinet. And a famous English critic, Ernest Newman, in perhaps the most devastating musical critique ever written, said that her voice was “uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting.” (When I told that to Patrice Munsel, the singer who played Melba in a 1953 film of that name, she replied that if she had known that, she would have included it in the talk she gave.)
If you listen to Melba’s existing recordings, some are impressive indeed— and in others she seems to be just phoning it in. In fact, when Clara Butt, a great contralto, asked Melba what she should sing for an Australian audience, Melba allegedly replied, “Sing ’em muck.”
She told the press that she preserved her voice by practicing no more than 10 minutes a day.