Dame Nellie Melba

“The first rule in opera is the first rule in life: see to everything yourself”

Dame Nellie Melba, Australian opera singer, 1861-1931 

Dame Nellie Melba was a ground-breaking operatic soprano who was one of the most famous singers of the late Victorian era and early 20th Century. She was the first Australian to receive international recognition as a classical diva. Her legacies also include culinary ones: Melba Toast and Peach Melba were first created for, and named after her. In 1897, the famed chef of London’s Savoy Hotel, Georges Escoffier, who was a fan of the singer, baked a dry toast for her when she was feeling ill when staying at the hotel. She reportedly loved it. But the chef’s tributes would not end there. After seeing her perform Wagner’s Lohengrin at Covent Garden, which includes a beautiful boat in the shape of a swan, he had a swan carved out of ice, and used it to present her with a dish of peaches, vanilla ice cream, and raspberry, which was to be memorialized as Peach Melba.

Born just outside of Melbourne as Helen Porter Mitchell, she got her debut singing at Richmond Public Hall at the age of six, but was not formally trained until after her marriage to Charles Armstrong in 1882. She studied in Paris, then changed her name in 1887 when she began performing in Europe. “Melba” is a tribute to the city of Melbourne. She made her operatic debut as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto in 1887 in Brussels. Until 1926 she sang in the principal opera houses of Europe and the United States, including the Metropolitan Opera. One of her most memorable performances was as Violetta in La Traviota.  While her career flourished, her marriage did not and it was dissolved in 1900. She became a Dame of the British Empire in 1918, and in 1925 published a memoir, Melodies and Memories about her trailblazing career as a fiercely independent woman and proud Australian.  


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