Portrait of the legendary soprano describes an operatic existence.
Born in Australia in 1861, Nellie Melba gave her first concert at the age of six. At 17, she left school to begin serious voice study. Her métier was bel canto singing, notable for its pure, flowing tones. Although the form had faded somewhat from popularity by the 1870s, spirited, headstrong Melba made it her signature style for life. Blainey (Fanny and Adelaide: The Lives of the Remarkable Kemble Sisters, 2001, etc.) meticulously follows the trajectory of a career that largely soared unimpeded. In Europe, Melba’s trills impressed Mathilde Marchesi, a daunting, imperious teacher who became her lifelong mentor. Soon after, the soprano garnered acclaim from the international press when she sang Rigoletto in Brussels. Bravas followed at the Paris Opera and, eventually, Covent Garden in London. Next came appearances at the Metropolitan Opera in New York and on tour throughout America. Timing seemed always on Melba’s side; the invention of the gramophone in the early 1900s made her an early recording star and preserved her voice for posterity. Along the way, a few critics carped about her hesitant acting and deemed her unsuitable for such heavy roles as Aida and Desdemona in Otello. Virtually everyone else rhapsodized, setting off “Melbamania.” Her personal affairs went less smoothly. She married before she left Australia; her husband was at first hostile to her career, then eager to appropriate its financial rewards for himself. In 1890 Melba embarked on an affair with glamorous Philippe, duc d’Orléans. When her husband sued for divorce in 1891, the resulting publicity eventually ended the affair, and Melba was separated for decades from her beloved son. Nonetheless, the overall impression is of a life replete with grand moments, such as the moonlit night in Venice when the diva sang from a gondola, with a procession of lantern-lit vessels following, their occupants attending raptly as her voice echoed through the lagoons.
Blainey writes with contagious enthusiasm for Melba and her resplendent world.