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Saturday, September 5, 2009

Dame Nellie Melba: The Enigma

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.


corax said...

as usual you enlighten us. i am amazed that animus against melba could live today, when no one now alive can have worked directly with her. it seems rather like harboring animus against oscar wilde for having been so self-congratulatory. all of that is far beyond the back reaches of our own personal memories or experience; what remains among us now is the greatness of what they achieved.

and wow, what an instrument she had. even in those archaic recordings, its beauty shines forth. there had to have been some 'there' there, for everyone to be so gaga over her; and it's obvious even from these primitive clips that it was a thing of extraordinary beauty. your words 'pure, sweet, angelic' sum it up very well indeed.

re: prima donna antics: don't you think there is something in public aesthetics ['popular culture' doesn't seem quite to include the world of opera, especially that of the last two centuries] that actually encourages our 'stars' to act in outlandish ways? i am thinking out loud here, and also thinking of some very contemporary phenomena such as PEOPLE magazine and the internet. but somehow i doubt this is a new phenomenon. i surmise rather that it's a time-honored form of semiotic marking -- a way of the culture's establishing the 'otherness' of the star. they are different, they are more glamorous, they are larger than life, they are special. and all of that serves to underscore and, in an odd way, even to consecrate the gifts for which we value them.

just a thought. but if this is the case, it would explain all the obsessive fuss surrounding stars, from geraldine farrar to marilyn monroe to britney spears.

your astute comments here on melba as symbol and archetype are focused on another matter, and are, alas, exactly right about her.

Jing said...

Edmund - I have just read your posting on Melba. Bravo! I found myself alternatively marveling at some your observations and laughing out loud (while still marveling) at others. What you show so deftly is opera's remarkable ability to draw energy from, as well as shed light on, our cultural archtypes. Well done!...A thought and a question. It seems to me that in situating Melba in the world of Anglo-Saxon Victorianism, the reaction to her "scandalous" style of life and art was bound to be revulsion and condemnation by her own - but also, at the same time, a kind of grudging fascination. Yes, fellow singers were only to happy to distance themselves from her - for the artistic and ego-driven reasons you indicate - but they did so by taking advantage of the mixed feelings about her by their fellow Victorians - at once disgusted and attracted by her Bohemianism. Having learned to expect (and more or less accept) such behavior from the Italians, the French, and the Central Europeans, it was still too much to take from one of their own. And while Melba just happily did as she pleased, her detractors could at least point to representative artists of these other ethnicities who had the grace and good sense to self-destruct, or at the very least lead miserable lives - unable to avoid their just desserts. Or were they accepting the "tragedy" of the true artist - which is what "Vissi d'arte" is all about? How unfair of Melba to have such fun and go unpunished! Speaking of desserts, this leads me to my question: Did Nellie really invent "Peach Melba" or was this an early media ruse?

Edmund said...

As so often happens, my friend, your comments raise issues more profound than the ones I try to discuss. You are of course right that there did indeed have to a "there" there. That has to be the case. At her best--and there are other recordings from a later period that show this to be the case--the musicianship, the technique, the presentation are really quite spectacular. The more profound issue you raise of the "prima donna" specifically, and of the artist/fan contract generally, requires reflection at the same time it invites speculation. Clearly, stars are created by the public for complex psychological reasons. The artist may contribute to becoming a star by working hard to perfect the required technique, presenting themselves in the most favorable way possible and trying very hard to please their audience, but all that is sometimes not enough. There has to be something very special there, something that "clicks." There are many excellent technicians out there, and artists who would seem to have every possible requisite attribute, who nevertheless never have good careers. What makes a star? What is the additional, magic thing that some have and some don't? We are hardly the only ones to ponder this. Everybody in the business wonders, especially the ones who don't make it:) It's very much like love. What do some people have that makes others fall in love with them? Looks? Nobody agrees on a standard definition of beauty. Talent? There is lot of talent out there that goes unheard. I remember a wonderful sign on the wall on the 3rd floor, I think it was, at Juilliard, outside the library, that said "Talent is common, discipline is rare." That may be part of it, but that is more applicable to the classical arts than to pop culture, where wild excess, commonly fueled by drugs and alcohol, can sometimes seem to be *pre-requisite* for stardom! As does the inevitable collapse, destruction, and even death, almost as thought that too was part of the contract. No, I think the answer lies in the realm of psychology. Most people feel they do not get enough recognition in life, and do not have enough. Life seems brutally unfair, and they harbor deep feelings of disappointment and bitterness. And then a performer appears upon whom they can, for one reason or another, project. Suddenly, they can, at least vicariously, bask for just a few imagined moments in the adulation, the excitement, the wealth, and even the excess. There, before them, is somebody who has, and is enjoying, all that most people wish *they* could have and enjoy. All is forgiven the wonderful object of adulation, the beautiful blank screen upon which they can project, every excess is pardoned. Then, often, the star begins to make the fatal mistake of thinking that it is really *them," their innermost being that is the object of public praise. They have no idea of the self serving nature of the public's adoration. Then, usually, time plays a very cruel trick--the object of adoration gets a little too old, a little too eccentric, a little too heavy and unattractive, a little too something or other, and it all starts to end. I'm hardly the first one to sketch out this scenario--it's close to being a commonplace--but I think it is probably fairly near the mark. It has qualities of tragedy about it. Sometimes, *sometimes*--and this is more to the point--the object of adoration outlasts these usual limitations...the adulation continues, even past death! THAT, it seems to me, is the real area worth contemplating. THAT is what is unusual and merits great attention, and THAT is where Melba failed. Is it perhaps a spiritual quality, a quality of personality, a question of undying affection for, and respect for, one's public? Now THAT's rare, and THAT has to be very close, I think, to the answer.

JD Hobbes said...

Yes, I agree with Corax. The public wants to believe that fame, wealth, and some kind of talent would make artists different and somehow above the masses. But as they become famous and wealthy, they begin to behave in a different way in reaction to public adulation and the pressure of performing well. After all, the public expects more each time. (Remember what Caruso said about having to sing 110%). Then I suppose the Pygmalion effect begins to occur, and the artist changes and often becomes reclusive. How else can s/he be that which the public expects? Can one imagine Elvis shopping for groceries? I think often of what Harry Truman said after leaving Washington. He said words to the effect that one minute he was the most important man in the world. The next minute no one gave a *** about what he said or did. But an artist cannot escape so easily and simply retire or be voted out of office. It is perhaps a reason for the high mortality rate (before age 35) in the pop culture world.

Edmund said...

As sometimes happens, I didn't get my answer to Corax's question up in time to appear under his question, so above here we have my answer to Corax, and above that we have a question from Jing, which I will try to answer here.

No, the peach Melba, along with Melba toast, were bestowed upon her by her adoring Australian public:)

Yes, an A natural on the Si, pel ciel. I did't comment at the time, because I remember from a previous post that your piano is a touch flat:) Also, having just retuned my harpsichord to Eb meantone, plunging headlong into the early 17th century, and dropping the pitch to 392 (don't's a long story) I don't think I could tell the difference between an A and B at the moment, in any case:)
Your observations on Victorian "Bohemianism" are interesting, and I have to admit I had not seen it in quite that way. Most interesting. You may well have something there. I suppose I would wonder at "Bohemianism." I think it may have been more the case that she hitched her fortune not to a shooting star, but to a decaying aristocracy, with all its silly pomp... the kind of thing ridiculed in half the Viennese operettas of the "Merry Widow" stripe. After WWI, the implosion of that aristocracy was catastrophic, and I think it took a lot of her reputation with it when it went. Suddenly, the girl from the rough and tumble world 1890 Australia--which was not unlike our own Wild West, started to look a little silly. Good comment!

Edmund said...

OK. We're all over the map here with questions and answers. I give up. Just look for the answer to your comment anywhere, folks. I have no idea where it will be:) Everybody wrote at once.

To answer J.D.'s comment: Yes, your point is a good one, and I think it speaks yet again to that very difficult problem of social contract: it's almost as though there is an understanding: You can be famous, and rich, and self-indulgent for a given number of years, but then we expect you to self-destruct, because you have exhausted your usefulness for us, and now we want to mourn excessively, and at great length (Michael Jackson) as a final, purgative act. And then they find somebody else. As I said to Corax, I think the REAL question is, Who survives this brutal contract? What are the qualities that permit *some* (very few) to escape this dreaded Faustian Bargain?

JD Hobbes said...

It is probably a bit of humor and common sense. I think of how very, very few people were able to succeed in Vaudeville, radio, movies, and TV. Who were they? Bob Hope, George Burns, Jack Benny, and perhaps a couple of others. Comedians. Ha. Interesting thought. Perhaps they didn't take themselves all that seriously. Michael Jackson and his family, on the other hand, appear to have become so bitter that even his mausoleum space will be off limits to the public from now on into the foreseeable future.

Anonymous said...

Sir Edmund, the article is very interesting, as usual. Operatic world has its specific rules . I don’t understand some of them, because I’m only a listener. I listened to her recordings, and I don’t know why people are so angry at her. She had a fine voice and interesting personality. Her personality can be “heard’ in her singing. She was no angel, but not “dull” either. Many modern singers have good voices, intellect and musicality, but their singing is less original. Melba’s performances are “charismatic”, though not perfect. I can’t call her a truly great, artist, because personality means too much for greatness. She was interesting though. It seems to me that her behavior was not only aggressive , but also typical for that period . I also agree about her naivety ; her attempts to find “the new Melba” were naïve
. There were other stars among theater actresses and singers , who behaved like “prima-donnas”, as if they tried to compete each other. It was a common style, which looks ridiculous now. There is a nice story in Buster Keaton’s memoirs about Anglo-Saxon dislike for prima-donna behavior (in vaudeville)
“Putting on airs was what old-timers most ridiculed. And they would rib the hell out of a woman as well as a man. Fritzi Scheff, the dainty Vienneze singer learned that the hard way. We were at the Grand theater, Pittsburg, the week Fritzi, following a great Broadway triumph in one of Victor Herbert’s operettas, was headlining there… .Fritzi traveled in the style of a Russian Grand Duchess….This little lady carried 36 pieces of luggage with her and an entourage consisting of a pianist, a chauffeur, a footman, and two French maids. One maid served her at the theater, the other at her hotel suite. A week before Fritzi arrived in each city, an interior decorator redecorated and refurnished her dressing room and hotel suite. Her dressing room’s décor featured magnificent mirrors with gold leaf frames and drapes suitable to one of the fabulous boudoirs at Versailles.
She traveled in a private railway car. Attached to this car was a flat car on which her Pierce-Arrow limousine rode. She used the Pierce-Arrow only for travels between her hotel and the theater. Or when it was only a short jump to the next city where she was booked to play. She made longer jumps by train….
The air in Mlle. Scheff’s dressing room was kept freshly perfumed with a delicate scent, and over the door of her dressing room a stagehand fastened an illuminated sign, reading ‘FRITZI’. She also had a red velvet carpet from the door of her dressing room to the stage. I promptly got into the spirit of things by nailing a cigar box over our dressing room. I cut the letters B-U-S-T-E-R out of it , and for illumination stuck a small lighted candle in the box, so the light would shine through. [ Keaton was 14 or 15 then] Bunny Granville, the comedian, who did the best “drunk” act, was dressing with Pop and me that week. “Why should I let Fritzi put me in the shade?” he demanded. “I might not have red carpet, but I have something that is lot more useful at times” As he talked, Bunny got out a roll of toilet paper and rolled it from our dressing room door to the stage” . A theater manager made them to take down the cigar box and to pick up the toilet paper, but other actors performed a terrible practical joke on Fritzi. They asked a stagehand to sneak into her dressing room and to sprinkle “itching powder” on her clothes and everywhere. She barely could finish her performance. Perhaps she was a good singer, but now she is remembered as a prima -donna and a victim of the practical joke.


Edmund said...

Well, yes....You're right that the fact they were comedians made a big part of the difference. They did not present themselves to the public as sex symbols or grand and highly melodramatic characters. They made people laugh. Laughter was their world, and it's a very healthy thing. The other has qualities of "fatality" and tragedy about it, and the emotions it stirs and powerful and can be dark.

Edmund said...

This is in response to n.a.'s comment. Fascinating comment. The Buster Keaton quotation is perfect. Yes, even though it is vaudeville, the same rule applies. As a race of people, we just don't like that behavior. I suspect it is the same in Russia. Antonina Nezhdanova was an approximate contemporary of Melba, and she exactly the opposite: she remains such a beloved soprano in Russia even today, and I'm sure it's because of her personality; the way she stayed in the country after the Revolution, and sang for everyone, whether they had anything to pay her with or not. She was an enthusiastic supporter of the new Government, and participated directly, with hard work, and never asked anything special for herself, and she never tried to sneak out and to the West to make money. That's the kind of quality I was talking about, and she had it. She remains an inspiration to this day. This is all very interesting.

Nate said...

Edmund, I think highly of your commentary on the art of Melba. I too believe that, as a whole, her singing does not rise to the level of Galli-Curci's. Of course, even when Melba began recording, she was already slightly past her prime (Henderson states that by 1907, her voice took only a "slightly acidulous" quality). Then there is the fact that the recording process itself was inferior to what it would soon become by the time Galli-Curci started her recording career. However, there is an additional point (or two, or three). A few of Melba's records seem to me to justify her exceptional reputation. Not so much the famous arias she recorded--although the Willow Song of 1910 is quite good--but some of the lesser-known airs, including her first performance on record of the tenor aria from Lalo's "Le Roi d'Ys." The purity of her tone and legato is quite wonderful, indeed angelic, and her breath control is phenomenal, particularly at the close of the piece, which contains a long, delicate phrase with trill on a single breath. Although the French style is not totally authentic, the beauty of Melba's voice and technique shines through with light to spare. Similarly, some of the songs by Bemberg that she put on disc are exceptionally beautiful, especially the piece titled "Sur le lac." In general, as contemporary critics often stated, Melba showed a special stylistic affinity toward French music, and championed the works of modern composers of her era. She sounded more comfortable in her phrasing of French opera, perhaps less "cut in lengths" and more rounded in her portamenti; and this, despite her relative lack of tonal color and rather poor French pronunciation. Another aspect one must consider when evaluating Melba's recorded output is that her tone--as those of Sembrich, Eames, and Nordica, for example--simply did not record well (for whatever technical reasons), whereas those of Tetrazzini and Galli-Curci took more kindly to the primitive recording equipment.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much indeed, Nate. Your comments are exceptionally perceptive, and very much to the essential point, which is that Dame Nellie's reputation was extraordinary in her own day. She was everywhere praised and her fans were legion. This does not happen because of someone's erratic temperament, or aristocratic bearing, etc. If you have not already done so, I would direct your attention to the comments made above by the first gentleman to respond to this particular piece, who uses the name "corax." He made similar observations, and one in particular stuck in my mind:

" what an instrument she had. even in those archaic recordings, its beauty shines forth. there had to have been some 'there' there, for everyone to be so gaga over her; and it's obvious even from these primitive clips that it was a thing of extraordinary beauty."

I think both of you have focused on the essential matter, and that is the angelic beauty of the voice, which, even though not 100% consistent, and doubtless effected de temps en temps by the primitive recording equipment of the period, was such that it was everywhere praised by the criticism of her own day, which we cannot, without enormous presumption, gainsay.
Thank you again for your excellent comments.

Avvocato Orsini said...

"...but then Melba comes from an earlier period. Melba is actually from the generation prior to Caruso!"

I have to commend this adroit observation, one that is also original: I have never heard that point made before, but is vital one in understanding Dame Nellie Melba.

I would also like to contribute that the other great Australian soprano of a much later time, Dame Joan Sutherland, learned the basics of singing from her mother, a mezzo-soprano. Her mother was taught to sing by a pupil of Melba's! That is very interesting, is it not!

Edmund St. Austell said...

It is very interesting indeed! I had not thought of that, but it is a very good observation, and I will certainly think of it henceforth!

Verdiwagnerite said...

Fascinating discussion! I am right this moment three quarters through reading a biography of Dame Nellie Melba by Ann Blainey and am struck by the amount of time she spent(obviously) travelling by ship or train between singing engagements. As an Australian, and a woman, she certainly faced many challenges that she was determined to overcome. A husband, who allegedly, may have hit her, wasn't going to stop her pursuing a career at a time when it was not socially acceptable for a woman to sing for money, especially in late 19th century Melbourne. She comes across as a strong woman who nevertheless was capable of being extremely kind to fellow singers, especially when they posed no direct threat to her professionally. She was definitely a diva but if the biography is accurate she certainly worked hard at her singing and was willing to try roles (probably unwisely) not suited to her voice, like Wagner, because the fashion of the Bel Canto style of singing seemed to be coming to an end.

Edmund St. Austell said...

Excellent and highly informative comment, a decidedly important contribution to the discussion! Congratulations, and my thanks!

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Edmund St. Austell said...

Thank you very much.