Nellie Melba in Sydney 1902
When Mrs Armstrong had sung for small audiences in 1886,very few people believed that she could make a career as a prima donna. Sixteen years later, these same people were encoring her every performance. She had changed her name and changed her repertoire. She was Nellie Melba and she was the pre-eminent diva of the day.
Melba’s first tour of Australia in 1902 was a celebration of a national hero. The country was a mere two years old, when Melba, at the height of her powers, toured. The tour was arranged by theatre impresario George Musgrove. Musgrove became a household name when he became associated with Melba
Melba received a rapturous reception when she arrived in her home town of Melbourne in September 1902. Sydney was determined to give a similar welcome. Unfortunately, Melba informed the Lord Mayor that she could not attend the planned civic ceremony.
She was engaged to perform four concerts in Sydney. By October 7th, four days before the first, 4658 pounds had been taken at the box office. This was an enormous sum for the time. Although Melba’s civic reception may have been cancelled, it was clear that her popular reception was going to be tremendous.
She arrived in Sydney via the Melbourne Express train on October 10th 1902. She was quickly ushered from the station to a lavish suite at the Hotel Australia. She was to make her first appearance in sixteen years at the Sydney Town Hall the next evening.
A series of major thunderstorms hit Sydney that Saturday evening. The streets flooded and gale force winds blew corrugated iron sheeting off roofs. Iron hoardings rolled down the city streets, bashing and crashing through the howling winds and rains.
The foul weather did not discourage those who were anxious to see Melba. The first night audience was an elite one. They each paid either one pound one shilling or ten shillings, six pence for a ticket. The crowd included the Governor Lord Rawson and his wife, who entered the auditorium to the sounds of the national anthem being played on piano. The Sydney Morning Herald became poetic when describing the scene.
Nearly four thousand people were present, and the innumerable tints of silk and satin that made the floor resemble a gigantic parterre of flowers surged in undulating lines throughout the balconies, overflowed into the choir spaces like a dazzling bouquet at the base of the majestic organ, and gave warmth to walls whose tones of chilly white are only corrected by such fortuitous decoration on great occasions.
At 8.15pm most of the vast crowd had settled. The performance opened with Mrs Llewela Davies and Mr Frederick Griffith playing an excerpt from Handel’s sonata in F for piano and flute. The audience waited patiently for the prima donna, and shortly before 9pm she appeared on stage.
Nellie was tall and dark and charismatic. She was wearing deep ivory tinted lace over pale pink chiffon. The dress was decorated with gold sequins and garlands of embroidered pink roses. She wore a long rope of pearls and a magnificent diamond necklace which contained a further three large pearls. Her hair was dressed low at the back and fastened with a diamond comb. She was a glittering, sparkling lady of light whose dress echoed the beauty of her voice.
That night Melba enthralled the audience with a performance that lingered long in memory. She began with Handel’s "sweet Bird". A song in which the singer imitates the sounds of a nightingale. Melba sang a series of leaping phrases, runs and trills with an ease and mastery that astonished the Sydney critics. One and all described in wonder the ‘lightness’ of her voice.
Nellie was called for five encores after this song and responded to each one. She sang Strauss, and then with an air of mischief followed with ‘Coming through the rye.’ For many the highlight of her performance was her rendition of the mad scene from ‘Hamlet.’ After this superb and emotional performance, she thrilled the people in the chair seats by sitting at the piano and accompanying herself to a Tosti air. The Herald described the audience’s faces growing ‘radiant’ as they experienced all the charm of a drawing room performance.
Nellie Melba had conquered the elite of Sydney. The critics were universally positive in their reviews. One described her singing as ‘a thing not to be criticised.’ He repeatedly described the ‘limpid charm’ and ‘silvery’ tones of her voice. Nellie Melba dazzled and charmed a whole city that Saturday night.
Her second concert on Tuesday October 14th was equally successful. For this concert, the organisers sold five shilling tickets. This ensured a more mixed audience. The Herald described it as an educated audience which could ‘bestow homage worthy of acceptance by artists such as Melba.’ Such was the diva’s power that she reversed the roles of performer and audience. Perhaps recognising that power, Melba wore a large and magnificent diamond tiara that night. She sang the mad scene from ‘Lucia’, Mozart and Verdi. She was enthusiastically encored, but did not respond as generously as she had the night before. This did not discourage the spectators who greeted her performance with loud cheers and the waving of thousands of handkerchiefs. The Governor, his wife and the Lord Mayor and his wife, Mr and Mrs Thomas Hughes, were also present for this gala occasion.
It was unusual for Melba to refuse encores. The reason for her refusal was soon revealed. On October 16th 1902 the Sydney Morning Herald published a letter from the prima donna that contained shocking news. Dated from ‘The Australia’ on October 15th, Melba had written to the paper, postponing her concerts.
‘I have for the last two days been suffering from a slightly relaxed throat. I am obliged to ask the public, who have been so kind to me, to forgive me for a short but absolutely unavoidable postponement of my two remaining concerts.’
Fortunately, the postponement was a short one. Melba committed to performing on Monday 20th October and Thursday the 23rd. George Musgrove advised all ticket holders that their tickets were transferable. Thus Sydney’s music loving public was satisfied.
Melba was a woman who knew the value of good press. The fact that she personally advised the newspaper of the postponement indicated this. Another indication was a small item in the newspaper two days later.
‘ Madame Melba wishes it stated that the paragraph from our Sutherland correspondent was the result of a misapprehension, as on Wednesday, so far from visiting the National Park, she did not leave the Hotel Australia.’
This also showed Melba’s power at the time. She was a woman determined to preserve her reputation and image. It is amazing that any woman of that time could wield such immense influence.
Another announcement on that day reinforced the point. It showed the benevolent side of Melba. She invited a small group of blind men to her next concert. This fact was reported in the newspaper with approbation.
On Monday, 20th October, Nellie Melba once again entranced a standing room only crowd. The delay had enhanced the quality of the perfect voice and over four thousand people had squeezed into the Town Hall to hear it. Melba was dressed like a queen. She was wearing a dress of shimmering silver gauze embroidered with pale pink sequins and roses. The front of the bodice was festooned with a vast array of shining diamonds which caused the diva to look like the embodiment of light as she moved across the stage.
The highlight of the evening was her rendition of ‘Home Sweet Home.’ The glittering prima donna accompanied herself on the piano as she sang this lovely tune. Many in the audience were moved to tears. The song quickly became one of Melba’s most popular requests in Australia.
Nellie Melba had one more concert to complete. Her rest had ensured that her voice was in perfect condition. It had also allowed her to indulge in other activities. The day of her final concert, she arranged to meet a young Australian contralto, Eva Mylott. Eva was journeying to Europe to further her career and was thrilled to meet Australia’s greatest soprano. Melba furnished her with an introduction to Madame Marchesi, Melba’s Parisian teacher. Miss Mylott gratefully accepted the introduction and Melba arranged to meet her in Europe the next year.
Melba’s fourth concert in Sydney took place on October 23rd 1902. The Town Hall was once again host to a regal crowd. The Herald described the scene in another poetic piece,
‘As viewed from the balconies or choir seats, the coup d’oeil of the Town Hall , with it’s myriad waves of colour to which snowy silks and laces gave the glint of foam, was eminently striking and picturesque.’
The audience and performers had a moment of concern, when at 8.30pm a group of 800 people, paying five shillings, rushed the entrances. They made their way to every corner of the hall, standing in every doorway and corridor and in the aisles. A feeling of panic began to spread and a babble of voices broke out. Louis Arens who was on stage was perturbed and distracted. The evening was for a moment, threatened by the mob. Yet everybody settled quickly and there was no disorder.
Melba, took the stage towards the end of the first part of the programme. She was dressed beautifully in pink and silver. These colours had been a theme throughout the tour. She wore a diamond coronet and a flashing diamond necklace. Her arrival on stage was the cue for thunderous applause.
She began with the mad scene from Hamlet. The spectators rose to their feet at it’s conclusion, begging the diva for more. She responded with Tosti’s ‘ La Serenata’. She sang this piece from a manuscript copy in the composer's hand. Melba also sang Puccini and concluded the evening with Tosti’s ‘Goodbye."
"Madame Melba again held a vast audience in thrall last night to the charm of her voice and the potent spell of a style of indescribable delicacy and finish.’
Began the Herald’s review. The critics repeatedly commented on the lightness and human qualities of Melba’s instrument. Perhaps it was this that gave her voice such broad popular appeal.
In 1902 Melba was at the peak of her power and her fame. She was the world’s greatest prima donna and an Australian. Two factors which ensured the tremendous reception she received from people all over the country. She returned many times, but never would she be able to repeat the perfection of those concerts of 1902.