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.