Dame Nellie Melba is one of Australia's most famous cultural icons and exports. Her operatic achievements were acknowledged internationally and her World War I fundraising efforts earned her the title Dame Commander of the British Empire.
Dame Nellie Melba is one of Australia's most famous cultural icons and exports. Her operatic achievements were acknowledged internationally and her World War I fundraising efforts earned her the title Dame Commander of the British Empire. She was born Helen Porter Mitchell in the inner Melbourne suburb of Burnley on 19 May 1861, and went on to take the stage name of Melba (after her hometown). Nellie attended Melbourne's Presbyterian Ladies' College where she received her first singing instruction from Pietro Cecchi. Her career breakthrough came in 1886 when she was accepted as a student in Paris by Madame Marchesi and her first international operatic success was in Brussels in the opera Rigoletto in 1887.
When she returned home triumphant in 1902 after an absence of 16 years in Europe, a public holiday was declared and Melbourne heaved with people, bands and flags. Her signature song, ‘Home Sweet Home,’ featured at the end of her sell-out concerts. In 1909, Melba undertook her 'Sentimental Tour', performing popular concerts in several regional towns throughout eastern Australia and New Zealand.
Melba raised funds for hospitals and for the Belgian people during World War I; she unveiled plaques, launched music and sporting events and left generous bequests, including for the Albert Street Conservatorium in Melbourne. Her many gestures of public charity and private generosity, as well as her regional tours and concerts for the people, reflect a diva who was also a proud Australian citizen and Melbourne resident. She maintained a strong connection throughout her life to Melbourne and the Yarra Valley, where she established her Australian home, Coombe Cottage in Coldstream. She was famously quoted as saying, 'If you wish to understand me at all, you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian.'
In 1927 Melba was made Dame Grand Cross of the British Empire. Her 'farewell' concerts during the 1920s became legendary; she made her final farewell on 23 February 1931. Her body was transported by special train from Sydney to Melbourne and massive crowds lined her journey from Scots Church (the church her father had built) to Lilydale Cemetery where she was buried with her father, mother and family as she had wished.