We may be familiar with ‘the Voice’ (John Farnham), but once upon a time that title belonged to another Australian: Dame Nellie Melba.
What’s less known is that Equity Trustees continues to manage her estate today – and because of that, we know Melba was charitable with her time and money. She taught for years at the Melbourne Conservatorium for free, hoping to discover ‘the next Melba’, and took a number of proteges under her wing.
Her philanthropy extended to such unique and specific causes as the Australian painter Hugh Ramsay, a ‘starving artist’ in Paris whom she aided not only financially but by introducing him to contacts in the art world. Hugh was actually the uncle of Janet Wicking (nee Ramsay)
She left an estate valued at £67,511 which we are very proud to continue to manage today. Ever determined to lay the groundwork for ‘another Melba’, she set aside £8000 from this for a singing scholarship at Melbourne’s Albert Street Conservatorium, now appropriately known as the Melba Memorial Conservatorium of Music.
Born in 1861 in Melbourne, Melba – whose birth name was in fact Helen Porter Mitchell – inherited her parents’ taste and talent for music. Taught initially by her mother, she pursued her musical education at the new Presbyterian Ladies College but in 1880, following her mother’s death, she left school and moved with her father to Queensland where she got married and had a son.
Her musical ambitions refused to dissipate, however, and in 1884 she left her domestic life to try for a singing career back in the city of her birth. Committing herself to intensive training, she made her début in May that year at the Melbourne Town Hall. “She sings like one out of ten thousand” declared The Australasian in its review.
Three years later she made her European debut in Brussels, again to positive reception. Her fame grew and by 1914 had spread so far and wide that no less than seven kings and queens attended one of her gala performances at the UK’s Covent Garden, where by now she had her own permanent dressing room.
The outbreak of the Great War negated further European performances, so Melba spent her time touring North America and raising funds for the war effort at home. She raised as much as £100,000 (roughly equivalent to $200,000 today), a tremendous effort.
Although in her 60s by the 1920s, she retained her extraordinary star power throughout the post-war decade. Her inexpensive ‘Concerts for the People’ in Melbourne and Sydney drew some 70,000 people, and her ‘farewell’ performances seemed to be without end as she continued to perform to adoring crowds. In 1928 she headed to Europe after her actual last Australian performance in Geelong, but a stint of ill health compelled her to return to the warm and familiar climate of her native country after two years. She passed away in 1931.
When she died, Melbourne newspaper the Argus posed the question, “Is it too much to say that she was the greatest Australian?”
Melba became an Australian icon, elevating the newly-federated nation on the world stage and further cementing Melbourne as a cultural capital. (Felton’s Bequest was already propelling the National Gallery of Victoria to prominence.) She was the first Australian to ever appear on the cover of ‘Time’ magazine, and today she graces our $100 note.
Melba’s popularity also helped establish the the gramophone as a ‘must have’ piece of technology, for which she recorded over 100 records. She later did the same for radio, becoming the first ‘entertainer of international standing’ to participate in broadcasts via that medium.