Australians will be united in song this month when they celebrate the 150th birthday of Australia’s original celebrity, and first lady of the arts, Dame Nellie Melba (1861 – 1931).
Leading the celbrations is the Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust which is charged with carrying forward Dame Nellie’s legacy into the 21st century.
Her birthday on May 19 kicks off an exciting calendar of events, which have been organised to celebrate the life of an incredible Australian.
The mark that Melba left on Australia is enormous, as an Australian artist, philanthropist, and pioneer for Australian women.
A single mother and career woman at a time when a woman’s place was in the home, Dame Nellie reached the greatest heights of world fame. She conquered the stages of the world’s opera houses and was arguably the most famous woman in the western world at the time.
Ann Blainey, author of Dame Nellie’s 2008 biography I am Melba, explained: “Her career-oriented life, her refusal to yield to obstacles, her ability to recreate herself, and above all her overwhelming celebrity, belong to this century more than to her own.”
Amy McPartlan, general manager of the Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust, said Dame Nellie used her celebrity for the greater good of our country, at a difficult time in world history.
“Melba used her fame to put Australia on the world map. Australia was her first love and she felt immense pride in her country, using her own profile to help grow Australia’s cultural identity,” Ms McPartlan said.
“When World War I broke out, Dame Nellie used her fame to raise money for the war effort. Interestingly, she was made Dame Commander of the British Empire for her services to the war effort, not her contribution to the arts,” she said.
Her philanthropic pursuits were as important to her as her career, and she threw herself into charity work with the same gusto as her performances.
A savvy business woman in a world dominated by men, Dame Nellie believed that to be successful in her field, to have a beautiful voice was ‘not enough’. She championed women learning personal presentation and business skills to gain financial independence and to give their careers longevity.
The Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust is her ongoing legacy to the arts world. It was Dame Nellie’s vision to support the development of young opera singers with exceptional promise ‘in the hope that another Melba may rise’.
Two-time scholarhsip recipient of the Melba Opera Trust and current Victorian Opera principal, Janet Todd, said the scholarships have filled a gap that currently exists for opera singers wanting to pursue a fruitful career in the arts.
“The mentoring, training and support I have received after winning the scholarship have been invaluable. Every focus of the Melba Opera Trust is how they can help us to become the singers we dream to be. It is remarkable to think it has only been running for two years, and already its programs are filling a niche that has been needed for a long time.
“We (young singers) are just so lucky to have the support and the opportunities it creates here in Australia. The Trust has provided me with a platform to launch my professional career and has given me the confidence to achieve feats that I could have only dreamed about before,” Ms Todd said.
Celebrations taking place to mark Dame Nellie’s birthday
Australia Post and the Perth Mint are releasing commemorative issues to celebrate the birth of the Diva in May. The stamp features Australian artist Rupert Bunny’s portrait of Dame Nellie, painted in 1902, and will be released on May 10. Dame Nellie’s personal emblem, the Rhododendron flower, will accompany her portrait on the one-dollar coin released by the Perth Mint.
An exciting calendar of events has been put together so that the community can celebrate Melba’s incredible life. Taking place in Melbourne, around her birthplace in Richmond and her spiritual home of Coombe Cottage in Lilydale, the events give the public a chance to learn more about the person behind the legacy, and give a new generation of fans the chance to learn about the legend that is Melba.
On Melba’s birthday on May 19 at 4 pm, a special commemorative plaque will be unveiled outside Scot’s Church in Collins Street, built by her father, to celebrate Melba’s birthday. There will also be a reception that evening at Government house to celebrate this special day.
In Richmond on May 22, biographer, Ann Blainey, will be presenting on Melba’s life at the Richmond Library. The children of Dame Nellie Melba Kindergarten in Richmond, the kindergarten Dame Nellie founded in 1915, will celebrate this historic event on May 20 with performances by Melba scholar Lauren Fagan and a special high tea to toast their patron.
The Lilydale community will be celebrating their favourite daughter with a Memories of Melba performance at the Athenaeum Theatre, Lilydale, on May 19 at 1.30 pm.
This event will feature a performance by Melba scholar Stephanie Gibson and a reflection on Melba’s life by emeritus professor Mel Waters.