Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 6, 2009

I Am Melba, by Ann Blainey #BookReview

i-am-melbaI am Melba is one of the listed books in the State Library Summer Read, and apart from The Zookeeper’s War which is on the ANZLL schedule for February, it’s the last one I intend to tackle before voting.  (The others just don’t appeal).  I am Melba is of interest for other reasons too: it’s useful background research for the memoir I am writing of Valda Johnstone, piano teacher of my childhood and one of Australia’s first ‘home-grown’ concert pianists and accompaniste to the stars.

In her last years in a nursing home, Valda’s mind was as alert as ever, and she was bored.  By chance, a program on Radio National taught me that the elderly need three things to feel contented: something to do; someone to love and something to look forward to.  This last is hard to provide, but I hit upon the idea of helping Valda to tell the story of her career, and she agreed.  It became, for both of us, the highlight of my visits.  Ever the performer, she would announce my arrival with voice recorder and laptop in hand to her fellow residents and the staff, and she loved it all: the  interviews, reading and correcting the drafts, and identifying the photos that should accompany the text.

And so it was, that (with her permission) I ventured into her home in Melby Avenue to locate the photos of various celebrities that formed part of her professional life.  Amongst them was an autographed photo of Dame Nellie Melba, Australia’s Queen of Song, with two of her protégés, Browning Mummery and John Browning.   (Valda gave her permission to donate the photo to the State Library of Victoria because it was deteriorating badly, as you can see from a catalogue search at the SLV, but they have done a beautiful job of restoring it.)  Valda wasn’t born till 1914, but both her parents were prominent musicians in New Zealand, and when they moved to Melbourne in 1918 they quickly became part of Melbourne’s classical music scene.  They were not there at the time of the infamous visit in 1902 when Melburnians turned on Melba and she swore ‘never to return’ (p222) but she relented, made frequent visits and spent her last years here – so there was plenty of opportunity for them to meet and to receive the photograph.

Valda was much too young to pay any attention to the sorrows of World War I, but it affected Melba deeply.  She lost many friends on the battlefields, and five of her relations were killed at Gallipoli.  Surprisingly perhaps, she was a supporter of conscription in Australia, but was also an active fundraiser, so much so that she was christened ‘The Queen of Pickpockets’ (p283).

It was during the war years when she was marooned in Australia by the war, that she became a supporter of the Albert St Conservatorium, giving lessons to aspiring singers of bel canto.  Previously she had been a generous supporter of the rival Conservatorium at the University of Melbourne,  setting up classes in 1909, raising funds through concert performances and giving her name to Melba Hall.  However  a change of professorship there led to a change of allegiance, a factor which contributed to the Albert St Conservatorium surviving longer than it otherwise might have.  (My friend Valda attended both, first at Albert St and then at Melbourne after the Diploma of Music course was first established and she won a much prized scholarship to attend there. )

Their paths may have crossed through other connections too.  Valda was only fifteen when she played a concerto with the Melbourne Professional Orchestra, conducted by Gustave Slapoffski, the same conductor from England’s Carl Rosa Opera Company who was hired by Melba to join her in both Melbourne and Sydney concerts.

As well as these items of interest to me for my research, I am Melba includes all kinds of other information of interest to music-lovers.  Although I love opera, I didn’t know much about the bel canto style of singing nor how much Melba’s unique talent in this style both hampered and enhanced her career.  It’s a particular way of training a singer to breathe which enables an extended range,  flexibility and virtuosity, best suited to extended trills but not strong enough for Wagnerian and other more demanding roles which were beginning to find more favour in European opera houses from about 1870 onwards.  Trained in this style by Pietro Cecchi in what was then the cultural backwater of Melbourne, Melba found initial favour on her arrival in London, but as the C19th waned bel canto began to be seen as old-fashioned.  Her efforts to sing Brunnhilde in New York in 1896 were disastrous, and she felt intense frustration at being limited to the older, less fashionable repertoire.  However, all things move in cycles and as the new style of singing became more prevalent Melba was feted as a rare exponent of bel canto.

There are amusing titbits too.  Opera was immensely popular in Melba’s time and she was a superstar in the days before celebrity.  From her wealthy fans she received many expensive jewels which she wore on stage to impress.  Adelina Patti (Melba’s role model) feared robbery so much that she was guarded by detectives masquerading amongst the chorus, but Melba contented herself with hiring extra security for her house and grounds, and left her fabulous jewels in the care of her personal staff.

Melba had many leading men, but the best known of these today is probably Caruso.  He apparently was a practical joker, but sometimes he took things a bit far!  In one of the most poignant operatic scenes, the death-bed scene in La Boheme, he ‘pressed a hot sausage into her palm just as he declaimed the line that her tiny hand was frozen’ (p236), and he squeaked a rubber duck in her ear while she sang Mimi’s dying words!

It’s also interesting to read about the realities of an operatic career at that time.  In those pre-penicillin days, every cough and cold was potentially fatal, and care for a professional voice was rudimentary at best.  When in Europe Melba overdid things and a nodule formed on her throat, it threatened to destroy her career, and rest was the only option.  She was intensely hurt by the maverick editor of the Melbourne ‘Truth’, a scurrilous newspaper, when he claimed that her frequent cancellations of performances in Australia were due to alcoholism.  This caused her great frustration because to defend the accusation was to give the newspaper the publicity it craved. Some audiences – especially in Tasmania, where the whole tour was cancelled – vented their disappointment unkindly after travelling long distances at great expense.    (Melba was also not impressed to find that – unlike even the smallest towns in America – in many Australian country towns no piano was to be found and she had to use the one from her personal train carriage .)

There were contractual issues too, especially in America when the Metropolitan Opera found itself in competition with the fledgling Hammerstein company.  In Australia, Melba refused to listen to J C Williamson’s plea to drop her prices when the country was suffering due to drought, and toured instead with George Musgrave.  And there were professional rivalries with other sopranos such as Luisa Tetrazzini, although Blainey seems to think that reports of Melba’s poor behaviour were unfounded.  Her refusal to acknowledge Cecchi as the teacher who provided the basis of her bel canto style, preferring to give all the credit to the French Madame Mathilde Marchesi, was apparently because he demanded money she did not have, just as she was about to depart for Europe.  She flung the money at him and swore that she would never give him credit for his role as her teacher.  And she never did.

Most interesting of all is that there is some mystery about the cause of her death.  There are rumours that a face lift – always denied – may have caused a disastrous infection.  Whatever the cause Melbourne turned out in thousands to mourn her, and because of her courage as a pioneer of the early recording industry, she remains one of our best known artistes.

Blainey has a slight tendency to ‘tell everything’ but this is a fascinating biography and well worth reading.
I am Melba

Author: Ann Blainey
Title:I am Melba
Publisher: Black Inc 2009
ISBN: 1863953671
Source: Personal copy.


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