Australia’s most famous soprano, Dame Nellie Melba (1861–1931) rose to international acclaim on some of the most prestigious opera-house stages in the world.

The star was born with the more prosaic name of Nellie Porter Mitchell in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond in 1861, growing up in the family home in Burnley Street.

Far from the opera stages of Europe, Nellie was prodigious at a young age, performing and entertaining Melbourne crowds with both her voice and piano playing. She had perfect pitch and an innate flair for entertaining.

Passionate about opera, she dreamt of a career as a soprano on the world stage. She excelled musically at East Melbourne’s Presbyterian Ladies College, and took lessons from Italian tenor Pietro Cecchi – though a profession as a singer was not well supported by her father.

Travelling to Queensland in 1882, she meet her future husband, Charles Armstrong, and her path took a detour. But married life in isolating and uncomfortable conditions north in the tropics didn’t suit Nellie. After giving birth to their son George in 1883, she left Charles and returned to Melbourne.

Resuming lessons with Cecchi, her voice made a splash in her first appearance at Melbourne Town Hall in 1884. This was the first step in embarking on a professional career. A tour of Victoria’s regions followed, with concerts in Bendigo, Ballarat and Sorrento, and she was a soprano in Melbourne’s St Francis’ Roman Catholic Church (cnr Lonsdale and Elizabeth Streets) in 1885.

Dame Nellie’s voice took her finally to the opera houses of Europe, where she found fame and international acclaim. She sung over many years in Paris and Brussels, at Covent Garden in London as the leading lyric soprano, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and before a daunting audience at La Scala, Milan, seen by many to be the ultimate test for an opera singer.

True to her theatrical sense of style, it was in Paris, 1886, that Nellie Armstrong became Nellie Melba –a tribute to her home town of Melbourne.

Drawn back to Australia in the early 20th century, Dame Nellie bought a property at Coldstream in the Yarra Valley in 1909, and built Coombe Cottage as her home. Today, you can trace Nellie’s steps at Coombe Yarra Valley winery, and tour her garden.

At the end of the same year, she laid the foundation stone for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne, where she taught singing.

The name Dame Nellie Melba has inspired stories and brought great influence. Touring Bendigo in 1921, she bedded down after her performance at the historic Shamrock Hotel, and is said to have had the chime of the post office tower clock silenced upon request so that she might get some sleep.

Even those unfamiliar with her operatic achievements are likely to recognise her name, immortalised in the famous dessert Peach Melba – and the more modest Melba Toast – created for her by French chef Auguste Escoffier. And you may recognise her face from the new Australian $100 note.

Dame Nellie Melba gave her farewell performance at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1928. She was honoured by the Order of the British Empire in 1918 and in 1927.

Portraits of the famous singer, including a beautiful work by Rupert Bunny, are held in collection at the NGV – unfortunately not currently on display, but can be viewed online. The Grainger Museum of the University of Melbourne has an exceptional portrait by Baron Arpad Paszthory, which once hung at the Princess Theatre. You can explore audio recordings, letters and photographs of Dame Nellie Melba in collection at the State Library Victoria.


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