On this day: death of Australia’s first megastar

By John Pickrell and Scarlett Keddie February 23, 2010
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She’s the face on our $100 note, but many Australians may never have heard of this enigmatic figure.

Born in 1861 in Melbourne, Dame Nellie Melba was a world-renowned operatic diva who participated in some of the first direct radio broadcasts. She has both a dessert and a suburb of Canberra named after her and enjoyed a phenomenal career and global adulation lasting 38 years. Moya McFadzean a curator at Museum Victoria in Melbourne describes her as one of Australia’s “greatest creations”.

Born Helen (Nellie) Porter Mitchell, she chose her stage name in honour of her home town of Melbourne. Despite the great distances and time involved in travelling by sea, the soprano toured throughout Europe, North America, New Zealand and Australia.

“Divas of Melba’s time were placed on social pedestals. They were talented, wealthy, often beautiful – and public property,” said Moya in a speech given at Museum Victoria. “Their private lives, their movements within the social set filled newspapers and gossip columns. Even more, perhaps than their operatic performances.”

“In 1909 she embarked on a ‘sentimental tour’ of Australia: covering 16,000 km, including many remote towns,” says the Australian Dictionary of Biography. “The further she toured, the deeper seemed the adulation: there were banquets, speeches, even small crowds at wayside stations as Melba progressed with an entourage consisting of her manager, a maid and a valet, together with two baby grand pianos.”

“If you wish to understand me at all, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian,” wrote Nellie.

During the World War I, Nellie helped raise more than £100,000 towards the war effort with a series of concert tours in North America, for which King George V awarded her a CBE in 1918.

Her operatic warblings were some of the first to be broadcast by radio in June 1920, though it’s said the sound did the purity of her voice very little justice. “She sings like one out of ten thousand,” one critic in the Australasian newspaper wrote in 1884. The dessert peach melba (which consists of vanilla ice cream with peach and raspberry sauce) was created for her in around 1892 by the head chef of the Savoy Hotel in London – and persists to this day.

“Before World War I, Australia was an uncertain nation. With little faith in its own political, industrial and, particularly cultural abilities,” said Moya. “The overwhelming success and recognition Nellie Melba received overseas aroused back home a new pride and new confidence in Australian potential.”

The idiom “more farewells than Dame Nellie” was born of her four-year-long farewell tour, which ended with a final performance in Geelong, Victoria, in November 1928.

Nellie’s death, aged 69, in Sydney’s St Vincent’s Hospital in 1931 is shrouded with mystery. Some experts allege that shortly beforehand she’d travelled to Paris for a facelift and contracted septicaemia on the journey home. Sadly, this was before the discovery of antibiotics.

Click for audio of Dame Nellie Melba singing ‘Goodbye’ in 1907
Read more information on Dame Nellie Melba from the Reserve Bank of Australia