Wednesday, October 14, 2009

From the Australian Outback to Covent Garden

One of my earliest memories - perhaps round 4 or 5 - was listening to the records of Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), played to me by my loving and beloved grandmother ...

I was fascinated and a bit disconcerted by the unfamiliar the high-pitched quality of an opera singer's voice. But my grandmother talked me into what understanding I could have at that age. And I am forever grateful for her introduction.

So yesterday I decided to put together two small videos about the great Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) - partly because I know she'd have absolutely loved to watch them.

But also for two other reasons.

A number of masters of Melba's first recordings were recently discovered in a vault in Hamburg and then, more recently, re-released (Article Sydney Morning Herald, 2 December 2008 and interview with Australian soprano Yvonne Kenny).

And I've long wanted to gather up all the tiny extant fragments of film footage I've found of the great diva.

In 1904, Melba had finally been persuaded by The Gramophone Company to commit a number of arias to disc. She required that a recording studio be set up at her home at Great Cumberland Place in London.

Her voice passed down a great horn through a diaphram to a needle which recorded the vibrations on a wax disc. The disc was then electroplated to give a 'metal master' from which shellac copies for sale were made in Germany. And it was these original masters that were found.

My first video is in two parts.

The first is the footage - of various tour arrivals and departures, scenes at home in Australia after retirement, cake-making as part of the civilian First World War effort, singing 'God Save the King' at the opening of the new Parliament House in Canberra in 1927 and being presented with a bouquet of flowers at some kind of civic reception, probably in London by the policemen's helmets.

Moments seem to reveal the singer's indomitable down-to-earth character, such as in the second sequence where Melba momentarily breaks in the filming to give firm and not-to-be-disobeyed orders to an at that point out-of-frame dog.

Portrait By Baron Adolf de Meyer

The audio for the first section of this first video is the spiritual 'Swing low, sweet chariot', which was recorded privately at home for her father and not heard until recently. Here the diva seems very up close and intimate to the microphone - she is so clear and 'present' that you can hear subtleties and qualities in her voice not previously accessible. This sound quality may also be due to the lesser dynamics of such a song which do not require the singer to step or be away from the trumpet to prevent the recording distortions involved with the often larger volume and higher notes of operatic arias.

The second section of this first video shows images of Melba through her career, including one of Philippe, duc d'Orleans ...

Philippe, duc d'Orleans

... with whom she had a potentially career-wrecking affair - but which eventuated only in a scandal which precipitated the divorce from her estranged husband, Charles Armstrong.

This section is accompanied by an audio of the initial part of Melba's Farewell Speech at Covent Garden in 1926.

She seems a strong and confident public speaker, quite in control of the proceedings.

It also gives a sense of her speaking voice.

Speaking to character, John Hetherington tells in his 1968 biography, that at one point during the speech the singer broke down into tears, resulting in the curtain being drawn. Melba instantly reacted ... yelling at the stage hands 'Open the bloody curtains!' And proceeded to gently sob again.


The second video has an audio from 1910 of Melba singing the lament 'Chant Hindou' by Herman Bemberg.

There was a discussion in 1967 between P.G. Hurst and Jack Freestone in which they agreed that this recording showed the emotional and expressive power the singer could produce 'when she chose'. They had both heard the great singer many times.


I really enjoyed putting this post and these two videos together ...

... because, as much as anything, it's been a specific focus with which to think about my selfless and adoring grandmother.

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