There is no early opera singer I can think of who deserves a clear-headed and objective study more than Dame Nellie Melba, but it seems impossible The mere mention of her name can even today, 148 years after her birth, create unpleasant arguments among opera lovers. The animus toward her remains colossal. However, before embarking on any kind of discussion of this problematic singer, I think it is important to hear at least two of her recordings. They are all short, because of the primitive state of the technology then. Some are even done on cylinders. Melba was renowned for her Gilda, so it makes sense to start with a 1904 recording of "Caro Nome" You'll need to turn up the volume on this recording:
Here we come face to face with the first of the difficulties of evaluating the art of a singer on the basis of a 108 year old recording. What comes through, tonally, is a mixture. There are moments of genuine beauty, especially when she trills. She necessarily covers just a bit (you cannot trill on a wide-open sound), and that additional cover places the tiniest cupola on the voice which erases the edge that such open phonation often produces. In those moments, one can sense what may have been—ten years earlier—a lovely floating sound in the opera house; angelic and pure. In fact, she was commonly praised in her day for that very kind of pure, sweet, angelic sound. The record also revels, if we are going to be honest, a sometimes wide open production above the passagio that starts to resemble a blaring horn, or worse, a screech. It pops up out of the vocal line like a jack-in-the-box, and can ruin the musical phrase within which it is contained. Here is her very first recording, also in 1904. It is a portion of the "Mad Scene" from Lucia. Again, turn the volume up:
You will of course have noticed the lack of a very high note at the end, which is by now obligatory. Once someone does it, it becomes tradition; sadly, for some sopranos. In any case, Melba, free from almost any traditions, owing to the earliness of her career, did not sing it. This aria, it must be said, is much better sung than "Caro Nome." Within this ancient recording, the sound that seems to possess some of the qualities for which she was famous is more in evidence. This singing,however, at least as evidenced in these old recordings, does not in my judgment rise to the level of singing attained by Galli-Curci, but then Melba comes from an earlier period. Melba is actually from the generation prior to Caruso! I think this is important to remember. We are really dealing with a historical artifact here. Whence, therefore, the undying animus?
When controversy surrounds an opera singer, it usually revolves around technique (Giuseppe Giacomini), eccentric acting (Anna Netrebko), erratic behavior (Franco Bonisolli) or selling out to popular stereotype (Luciano Pavarotti). In the case of Nellie Melba, I have to admit that I have always wondered at the visceral dislike that still exists among many opera fans for a singer born in 1861, (shortly after the beginning of the American Civil War!) who spent a great part of her career in the Victorian world of the late 19th century. The "Caro Nome" and "Mad Scene" fragments were recorded when she was already 43 years old. One would think that it would be possible by now to view so ancient a career with a kind of disinterested objectivity. Not so. A casual glance at the Youtube video postings of Melba's old records is a clear indication of the fact that there are very few civil disagreements about Dame Nellie Melba. This has been going on for years. I remember it clearly fifty years ago, when, if anything, it was worse.
I talk a great deal about the archetypal, because in opera especially, the themes—both musical and dramatic—are so very broad. Sometimes this infects the singers, whose melodramatic portrayals, emotionally felt and presented, are fortified by the approving applause and shouts of the audiences, year after year. Some people begin to act, in their everyday lives, in the same kind of way. This quickly conduces to what might be called the "prima donna" syndrome. For some reason that I can recognize but not explain, the Latin and even middle-European "prima donna," as a type, can often elicit the occasional smile—there is something vaguely amusing about it all, and in a strange kind of way, the "prima donnas" themselves seem to know it. There is a kind of Latin grandiosity, for example, that is understood by both audience and performer to be a bit of a schtick, by turns annoying or funny, but entirely tolerable. But curiously, this does not work at all well in the Anglo-Saxon world, where mistrust and dislike of such behavior is intense. Melba is a case in point. There was a crudeness to her prima donna antics that was not in any way funny; on the contrary, it was mean-spirited and self-obsessed; a dead-eyed and humorless arrogance coupled with a chilling disregard for others. There was no misty-eyed love of the art that carried her to silly but somehow grand Olympian heights of rapture and artistic ecstasy. No "Vissi d'arte " here—more like "d'amour propre." She came from humble beginnings in Australia, whose level of culture at the time was not what it would one day be. The same could be said of the United States at the time. In fact, Melba's humorless grandiosity reminds me of some notable Americans born in the 19th century who also fell prey to this strange, unsophisticated, grand sense of self importance. I think of Frank Lloyd Wright and Douglas MacArthur; two extraordinarily self important and unpleasant individuals who treated others badly and asserted their superiority to one and all. Both, to be fair, were prodigiously talented men. And Melba was a world-class singing phenomenon. Perhaps there is a New-World naïveté in all these individuals, who became fatally entranced by the increasingly tawdry glamour of a rapidly decaying European aristocracy. Melba, who gave command performances before crowned heads of Europe, who had an early and scandalous affair with Philippe, the Duke of Orleans, and who paraded herself endlessly in aristocratic gatherings, had in fact fallen in love with all the mannered affectations of European aristocracy, which she wore like an ill-fitting dress. On her, the gold turned quickly to brass.
I know this is a one-sided picture so far. No one can be so simply and negatively described. To her credit, she did admirable work entertaining soldiers and raising money during the First World War. She endowed conservatories and supported and encouraged some younger singers (although usually younger sopranos who showed promise of becoming "the new Melba.") Also, it was not the public who disliked her—quite the contrary: she had a tremendous following, and praise and adulation was showered on her, especially in Australia. The animus of which I have spoken turns out, upon reflection, to be held largely by other performers, both those who worked with her and had to suffer her (perceived) insults and slights, and the generations of performers who followed, and saw in her—as an archetype—all the forces arrayed against them and their own hopes. That being the case, perhaps we should not take the negativism all that seriously.