Melba, The Australian Nightingale
( Originally Published 1907 )
A memorable performance of "Aida " was given in London, at Covent Garden, a number of years ago. The Ethiopian slave-girl, dark-tinted and slight of figure, attracted no particular attention with her first unimportant recitative notes. The audience was diverted by the fine tenor singing, the excellent contralto, and the well-drilled work of the chorus. There followed more of this ensemble, more good orchestral playing, and then an effect of melody, or rhythm, or something—that gradually caused every pulse to quicken, and stirred every soul in a strange, unaccountable way, until suddenly we realized that it was not the rhythm, or the harmony, or the tenor, or the orchestra, but one soprano voice, whose tones seemed to penetrate all space and soar to all heights and thrill all hearts in a manner that was overpowering!
The slave-girl was singing ! A new star from the Southern Hemisphere was just beginning to appear in the North! A " new name" had been added, and was soon to be heard by "all who had an ear to hear "—Melba, the Australian Nightingale.
All critics agree that the quality of her voice has never, in the annals of music, been surpassed.
In furnishing Melba her name, which is a diminutive of Melbourne, the far continent has sprung into a musical prominence it never before attained. From a land at the outer edge of the world, a sovereign of song has arisen.
It would, of course, be artistic and effective to picture Melba's early life as one of struggle and privation. But, search as one will, not a crust or a tatter turns up in her history ! She never shivered on a doorstep, or sang for pennies in the street ! Let the dismal truth be told, her father was wealthy, and his gifted daughter never lacked for anything.
Nellie Mitchell, as she was known in those days, was gifted not only with a voice, but with a splendid determination to work. She practiced diligently all the time in the line of her ambition, and learned to play admirably on the piano, violin, and pipe-organ. All this in spite of the diversions and enticements of young companions and monied pastimes. Wealth, as well as poverty, may serve to hinder progress, and it is much to Melba's credit that she had the perseverance to work unceasingly.
Even at school, during recess hours, she was always humming and trilling. This latter trick was a source of puzzling delight to her comrades, who never tired of hearing "that funny noise she made in her throat." The marvelous Melba trill, you see, was a gift of the gracious fates at her birth—just back of the silver spoon in her mouth was tucked a golden trill.
The story of her childhood is best told in her own words:
My mother was an accomplished amateur musician, and it was her playing that first gave me an idea of the charms of music. I was forever humming everything I heard, and she was always telling me to stop, for my noise was unceasing! My favorite song was 'Coming Thro' the Rye.' I also liked ' Nellie Ely,' because my own name was Nellie! "
Incidentally, it was learned that dolls were tabooed by this prima-donna in pinafores.
I bated dolls. My favorite toys were horses-wooden horses. One given to me by my father's secretary was almost an idol to me for years."
Recurring to the subject of music, Mme. Melba continued :
"I didn't sing much when a child ; I only hummed. And by the way, a child's voice should be carefully guarded. I consider the ensemble singing in schools as ruinous to good voices. Each one tries to outdo the other, and the tender vocal cords are strained and tired. I, personally, did not seriously study singing until after my marriage at seventeen years of age."
The preparation required for Mme. Melba's career was neither very long nor arduous. She studied nine months with Marchese, then was ready to make her debùt in Brussels as a star.
All things came easy to her, because her voice never had to be "placed"; her tones were jewels already set.
"The first opera I ever heard was ' Rigoletto.' That was in Paris, when I was studying. What did I think of it? Well, I dare say my inexperience made me very bumptious, but I remember thinking I could do it better my-self! In Australia I had no chance to hear operas. 'Lucia' I have never yet heard, tho that is perhaps the rôle most associated with my name."
Lucia " has, indeed, become a Melba possession. The mad-scene alone, on a program with her name, would invariably crowd the house. It is a veritable frolic to hear her in this aria. She is pacemaker, as it were, to the flute, which repeats every phrase that she sings. It is the prettiest race ever run, and when at the finish the timekeeper brings down his baton, the audience cheers itself hoarse for the winner.
When asked her opinion of the new gramaphones and the wonderful records of her voice, Madame Melba spoke with enthusiasm.
"They are, indeed, a remarkable achievement. I am looking, however, for still greater improvements, and am keenly interested in every new development."
A matter of "keen interest" it must, indeed, be to every prima-donna of today—this amazing, magic trumpet that can record the subtle individual quality of a singer's voice, and give it gloriously forth again when desired. By means of this weird invention, the present vintage of fine voices can be bottled up like rare wine, and poured out in future years. More wonderful still: like the "widow's cruse," this trumpet never grows empty; from its up-tilted mouth the flow of song will stream on continuously, if so desired and directed. It is enough to make poor Jenny Lind and other long-silent singers turn restlessly in their graves: they died too soon to profit by the powers of this recording trumpet,—which surely has no rival save the one that Gabriel blows.
Some further random questions about the experiences of a prima-donna elicited the fol-lowing item. Mme. Melba smiled as she told it:
" Yes, I have some queer things said to me. Just recently a young girl of eighteen, who wished me to hear her sing, assured me that there were only two fine voices in the world today—hers and mine!
"But I must tell you," she added brightly, " the most graceful compliment ever paid me. It was by an Irish woman, who, in commenting on the lack of song in the native birds of Australia, pointed out that they had treasured up all their melody through the ages and then had given it to' me."
Some one has said, "The ease of Melba's singing is positively audacious ! She certainly makes light of the most time-honored difficulties. She will start a high note without any preparation, with apparently no breath and no change of the lips. Faint at first as the fabric of a dream," it is followed by the gradual grandeur of a glorious tone, straight and true as a beam of light, until finally it attains the full zenith of a crescendo.
In a bewildering variety of ways writers have attempted to describe the wonder of her voice.
It seems to 'develop in the listener a new sense; he feels that each tone always has been and always will be. She literally lays them out on the air."
" Her tone production is as much a gift as the voice itself."
After all, "she is Melba, the incomparable, whose beauty of voice is only equaled by the perfection of her art."
" In future years the present time will be referred to, musically, as ' in the days of Melba.' "
Like all great prima-donnas, Madame Melba has a beautiful home of her own, and a country place to which she hies in the summer. Her town house is near Hyde Park, London.
We imagine these song-birds during the hot months resting luxuriantly in their various retreats—Melba in her river residence, Calvé in her French chateau, Jean de Reszke on his Polish estate, Eames in her Italian castle, and Patti at " Craig y Nos." But it is hardly an ac-curate picture, for rest to the artist still means work. They study all summer, every one of them, and entertain other artists, who work with them, or, at any rate, contribute to the perpetual whirl of music in which they live.
A very good idea of the home life of these song-queens was given to me by a young lady who visited one of them for several months.
"Do you know," she said, "it was positively depressing to be near so much talent and genius.
Why, in the drawing-room they would be talking seven or eight languages ; and some one would improvise at the piano, while another would take a violin and join in with the most wonderful cadenzas, and then, perhaps, the piano-player would step aside and some one else would slide into his place and continue the improvisation the first one had begun; and so on all the time, until really I began to feel just about as small and worthless as a little pinch of dust."