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Nellie Melba (1861 - 1931)


Born Helen Porter Mitchell into a family of Scottish origin, Melba played the piano and sang during her education at a local boarding school and Presbyterian Ladies College. She went on to study singing with Mary Ellen Christian (a former pupil of Manuel García) and Pietro Cecchi in Melbourne, where she performed in amateur concerts. Although she had married and become the mother of a son, Melba separated from her husband and made her professional debut in Melbourne in 1884.

On the strength of local success she left for London, where her debut took place in 1886; but on making little impact she moved to Paris and became a pupil of Mathilde Marchesi, who on first hearing her exclaimed ‘J’ai enfin une étoile!’ (‘I have a star at last!’). On Marchesi’s advice, Melba adopted her new stage name, a contraction of the name of her native city. Her operatic debut, immediately successful, was as Gilda / Rigoletto in Brussels in 1887, followed shortly after by Violetta / La traviata.

The next year Melba made her debut at the Royal Opera House, London in the title role of Lucia di Lammermoor. Her performance met with only a respectful reception; but when, with the support of local nobility, she sang Juliette / Roméo et Juliette opposite Jean de Reszke in 1889, she enjoyed a triumph from which she later dated her true success as an opera singer.

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