“What are we singers but the silver-voiced messengers of the poet and the musician?”  Dame Nellie Melba
Dame Nellie Melba was Australia’s most Iconic Operatic Diva. At the height of her success, she was said to be the most famous woman in the world. In addition to her extraordinary voice, Nellie was a stylish fashionista, a savvy businesswoman and raised large funds for charity during WW1. Throughout her life Nellie commanded an international league of fans including famous artists, socialites and royalty.
Born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond Victoria, Nellie described herself as “an unusually naughty child who was incapable of behaving” Nellie was taught piano by her mother at a young age and first sang in public at the age of eight – A reporter from The Australian newspaper observed:
“She is a musical prodigy and will make a crowded house whenever she is announced again.”
As a teenager Nellie progressed her musical skills by taking formal lessons, playing the organ at church, and performing in amateur concerts. In 1881, following the death of her mother and her youngest sister, Nellie left school and moved to Queensland with her father. There at age 21, Nellie met and married Charles Armstrong.
In 1884, unhappy in this marriage, Nellie took a brave leap of faith. She left her husband, took her recently born son and headed to Melbourne to pursue her dreams of a professional musical career. After performing in 1884 at Melbourne Town Hall, Nellie went on a successful regional Australian tour. In 1886, she made her London debut at Princes Hall, then travelled to Paris to further develop her skills.
Mathilde Marchesi in France noticed Nellie’s talents and became her mentor. Mathilde reportedly proclaimed of Melba:
‘J’ai enfin une etoile!’ – ‘I have a star at last’. 
Under Mathilde’s tutelage, Dame Nellie made her first operatic appearance in Brussels in 1887. She was met with glowing reviews. At this time, she adopted the stage name Melba, a homage to her beloved home city Melbourne.
Across Europe, Nellie Melba’s voice became renowned for its even quality over nearly three octaves. Her soprano saw her perform to Tsar Alexander III, King Oscar II, Emperor Franz Joseph, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and Queen Victoria.
Inspired by one of her Iconic performances, French Chef Auguste Escoffier, created ‘Peach Melba’ – a delicious dessert he served Nellie at a dinner she was hosting presented theatrically in the ice sculpture of a Swan. Escoffier went on to create numerous other tributes including Melba Toast.
Throughout her time performing across both Europe and Australia, Dame Nellie made almost 200 recordings. In addition to her talent, Nellie was both artistic and astute in actively promoting her public image as a distinctive extravagant brand. Her strategies included elaborately costumed portraits, advertising endorsements and a ‘M’ for ‘Melba’ Monogram which adorned everything from her linen, her furniture, her hair pins, personal gifts and the gates of her home in Coldstream. By 1902, when Nellie returned to Australia, she was an internationally renowned super star.
Dame Nellie laid the foundations for the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music at the University of Melbourne where she taught singing. During WW1, she raised funds for wartime charities and performed wartime concerts in North America. Her wartime charitable contributions resulted in her being made “Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire” in 1918.
Dame Nellie’s final performance was at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre in 1928, three years before her death in 1931. Her funeral procession from Scots Church, Melbourne to her final resting place in Lilydale was attended by thousands of mourners.
In 2020, Dame Nellie Melba was commemorated on the new design of the One Hundred Dollar Australian Banknote. In addition to her image being visible on the note, the microprint features excerpts from Melba’s autobiography Melodies and Memories.
This Biography has been written in consultation with Coombe Yarra Valley Estate
Photo: MM Melba (c. 1907) Rotary Photo, David Elliot Theatrical Postcard Collection.
Nellie Melba – Film Footage, ‘Del ciel clemente un riso’, Farewell Speech, Covent Garden (1926)
NELLIE MELBA.FAREWELL PERFORMANCE.Royal Opera House.1926.London.ELECTRIC RECORDING TECHNIQUE
Further Footage: Dame Nellie Melba | National Film and Sound Archive of Australia
Find out More: Visit the Dame Nellie Melba Museum
Site 1: Dame Nellie Melba Memorial Park is a little park in Richmond, featuring ornamental garden beds, shady lawns and specimen trees; it’s an ideal place to relax.
Site 2: Coombe Yarra Valley Estate in Coldstream.
Dame Nellie Melba – is immortalised in bronze at the home she built in the Yarra Valley in 1911. Previously on show at Docklands, the statue of Dame Nellie Melba created by artist Peter Corlett, has been permanently moved to the beautiful historic Coombe Yarra Valley Estate in Coldstream. Visitors are invited to take a glimpse into Melba’s extravagant life on a guided tour of Coombe cottage or the stunning 100-year-old gardens surrounded by 600m of Cyprus hedges.