Sunday History Photo / Person

Submitted: Sunday, Jul 05, 2015 at 07:15
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Dame Nellie Melba who was born Helen “Nellie” Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Victoria – a suburb of Melbourne, Australia – on May 19, 1861. Nellie was the eldest of several children in a music-loving family. Her father, David Mitchell, was a successful building contractor and brickmaker. Nellie’s mother, Isabella, played several instruments, and served as Nellie’s first music teacher. Nellie was a tomboyish child with a fondness for whistling. She first sang in public at the age of eight, in December 1869, in the new Richmond town hall. She was the youngest to perform in a community concert for 700 spectators as part of the town hall’s grand opening. Nellie sang three songs, accompanying herself on the piano, to the delight of the audience. Local reporters wrote enthusiastically about her performance, saying she was a “gem,” “incomparable,” and “a musical prodigy,” giving an early glimpse of the success on Nellie’s horizon. She was the first Australian to achieve international recognition as a classical musician. She took the pseudonym "Melba" from Melbourne, her home town.




Nellie received her early education at a boarding school in Richmond. As a young lady she enrolled in the Presbyterian Ladies College, where she studied piano and voice. Around the time of her mother’s death in 1880, Nellie left school and moved to Queensland with her father. There she met her husband, Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong. They married in 1882 and had a son, George. Their early time together was short-lived; Nellie became depressed by her husband’s angry temper, as well as the area’s harsh tropical climate and constant rain. In 1884, taking her son and a few possessions, she left her husband for Melbourne in hopes of pursuing a serious musical career. She and her husband would reconnect sporadically over the next few years, till they eventually divorced in 1900.




Nellie sang her way from Melbourne to Sydney, making a name for herself in the city as an operatic soprano. She then headed to London, where she made the connections necessary for pursuing a career in earnest. In 1886 she began performing in concerts organized by Wilhelm Ganz, a singing professor at the Guildhall School of Music. Though she found some success in London, she felt her career was not progressing quickly enough. A patron from Melbourne had written Nellie a letter of introduction to famed German mezzo-soprano, Mathilde Marchesi. Nellie traveled to Paris to meet Madame Marchesi, who agreed to take her on as a singing pupil and would end up having a great influence on Nellie’s career. In fact, Marchesi is responsible for convincing Nellie to take the stage name Nellie Melba—Melba deriving from her home city of Melbourne. After many years of study and countless hours pounding pavement, Nellie’s operatic debut finally came in 1887 in Brussels, as Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.



Over time Nellie gained great popularity, singing in principal opera houses in Europe and the United States, most notably Covent Garden in London and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. She was well-known in high-society circles, and was asked to perform for important figures including Tsar Alexander III, Emperor Franz Joseph and Queen Victoria. She was the Edwardian equivalent of a major celebrity; when she appeared in public, crowds fought for her attention.
It was in London, while performing at Covent Garden, that Nellie became acquainted with Escoffier. The legendary French chef was known and respected worldwide for his innovative, imaginative dishes and “haute cuisine.” During the late 1800s, Escoffier partnered with César Ritz (of Ritz Carlton fame), and made a name for himself as the head chef of the restaurants located inside the famous Ritz hotels. His food was known for being elaborate and fancy—what we might describe today as being “typically French.” His 11-course meals were sauce-heavy, often including smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and Beef Wellington. They became the trademark of indulgence and wealth. Many of his creations were named for the star patrons of his restaurants…which, of course, brings us to the Peach Melba.



The Peach Melba is one of the most famous and beloved desserts in the world. This creamy and cool dish – a simple and classic preparation of vanilla ice cream, sugary peaches, and raspberry sauce – has graced restaurant menus for decades. While many people are familiar with this delectable dessert, few know the story behind the dish. It all starts with famed French chef Auguste Escoffier and his friendship with an Australian opera singer named Nellie Melba.




Today Nellie and Charles Armstrong's first home at the Marian Sugar Mill. Queensland has been restored and is now the visitor information centre for Pioneer Valley Tourism that promotes its links with Melba.


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Reply By: Nomad Navara - Sunday, Jul 05, 2015 at 19:44

Sunday, Jul 05, 2015 at 19:44
another great piece of Australian history, Thanks Doug.
AnswerID: 556701

Reply By: muzbry - Monday, Jul 06, 2015 at 05:32

Monday, Jul 06, 2015 at 05:32
Gday Doug
The David Mitchel quarries are still running nicely in Lillydale . I didnt know about the house at Marrion Qld , as Darling and I lived at Pleystowe, just down the road.
AnswerID: 556707

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