Melba's Paris Debut Season

Since Melba's success at Brussels, Mathilde Marchesi had been trying to convince Nellie to make her debut at the Grand Opera in Paris.  

However, while the Théàtre de la Monnaie granted Nellie leave to go to Covent Garden, it would not let her appear at Paris and Nellie didn't want to break her contract.   

After the poor response at Covent Garden, the manager Augustus Harris released Melba who returned to Brussels with George in July.   

They settled back into the house in Rue de Bac; George was enrolled into an infant's school while Nellie returned to her studies. (1)  

Soon after her arrival back in Brussels, one of the patrons of Covent Garden, Lady Jane de Grey wrote asking Nellie to return to London for the 1889 season. Nellie refused but Lady de Grey persisted and according to Melba in the next post a second letter from Lady de Grey arrived:

"I did not tell you in my first letter that one of those who are most anxious for your return is the Princess of Wales (later Queen Alexandra). She was present at your performance of Rigoletto, and she was deeply impressed by your singing. I know that things were badly arranged for you before, but if you come back I promise you that it will be very different. You will be under my care and I shall see that you do not lack either friends or hospitality." (2)  

Melba realised that someone had seen her performance and appreciated her so she accepted the invitation.

Mathilde Marchesi's husband the Marquis de Castrone, continued to try and arrange for Nellie to sing at the Paris Opera and Nellie asked him negotiate for her and to work around her existing contracts.

"Do not let the good moment escape; it never comes twice in life! The Directors of the Opera are in a great want of a good Prima Donna at this moment, and all the subscribers want the Melba. No one knows what may happen in a few months, and people who run after you presently, may turn against you if you do not appreciate their interest in you!" (3)

While in Brussels, Melba received many offers of engagements from various opera houses in Europe. Mathilde Marchesi feared Melba would accept one of the offers so urged her to come to Paris first:

"You have been feted, adored and spoiled in Brussels, It will be the same in Paris! After having sung in Paris for two years you will be a celebrity, your name will be known throughout the world (which is not the case today), and you will achieve what you want. Think carefully and don't make any hasty decisions." (4)  

Triumphant return to Brussels  

Back at the Monnaie, Melba was again triumphant in Lakmé in October and in the third week in November sang Ophelia in the Ambroise Thomas opera Hamlet.  

To the Belgians, Melba was their star.


In late February, probably February 25, Melba appeared in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette as the daughter of the Capulets. Engel was Romeo and Maurice Renaud appeared as Capulet.

"Melba's success in the new role was nothing short of a triumph, and the Belgians lost no opportunity of showing their esteem of the singer, whom they had come to regard as one of themselves; while the Belgian Royal Family evinced a most unusual interest in the prima donna who was regularly summoned to the Queen's box to receive Her Majesty's congratulations and encouragement." (5) 

While in Belgium, Melba continued to study but also took time to help at charity performances at Liège and elsewhere and also appeared in oratorio.

At the end of the opera season in April, the subscribers presented Melba with a beautiful diamond as a souvenir and at the farewell performance Melba received more than 60 bouquets.  

On April 14, 1889, the King of the Belgians presented Melba with the gold medal of the Brussels Conservatoire as an official token of the people's esteem. (6)


Paris Debut

With the end of her contract, Melba was now free to appear at Paris and fulfil the ambitions of the Marchesis and to stamp her imprint on the opera world.

Melba and George arrived in Paris on May 2 and settled into Number 12, Avenue Carnot, a place that was familiar to George.


Melba has also begged her father in Australia to allow her sisters Annie and Bella to visit and be present for her Paris debut on Wednesday, May 8, 1889.  

Melba chose Hamlet due to her success as Ophélie in Brussels.  

However, she quickly discovered singing in Paris was very different to singing in Brussels.

"To sing in Paris seemed to me a very much more arduous ordeal than to sing in Brussels. The theatre was larger, the critics, as I was well aware, were more difficult to please; the audience, as I was informed, almost impossible to sway to any sort of approval unless they were presented with something superlatively good. Most nerve-racking of all was the fact that I knew there to be an unnatural prejudice against artists who were not of French extraction." (7)

Melba had added obstacles to face. The production was postponed several times as Madame Richard who was playing the Queen, had been ill. And on the day of her debut, Jean Lassalle who was to play Hamlet, suffered laryngitis so Melba had to appear with a Hamlet she had not seen.


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    Melba's success continued when she sang in Rigoletto and Lucia di Lammermoor.  

    In her first performance of Lucia, her principal tenor Signor Cossira was suffering an acute cold and his voice was pitiful and he was hoarse, flat and breathless.  

    There was a full house so Melba sang his recitatives but the curtain had to come down for she couldn't do the duets.  

    Melba had given singer and friend M. Engel two tickets to the performance and he was sitting at the front. He had sung that role in Brussels so Melba asked the directors to ask him to sing. After a 20 minute delay, the opera continued with Melba and Engel. (8)  

    The American press also reported the event see link above.


    After her Paris success, Melba returned to England to conquer Covent Garden. This time she had the indefatigable Lady de Grey to help.


    (1) P. Vestey, Melba: A Family Memoir, Pamela Vestey, Coldstream, Melbourne 2000, Letter Marchesi to Nellie September 30, 1887, pg. 45.
    (2) N. Melba, Melodies and Memories, Thornton Butterworth Ltd, London, 1925, pg 57.
    (3) P. Vestey op. cit., from letter of the Marquis de Castrone, Paris, July 8, 1888, pg 45.
    (4) P. Vestey, op. cit., Letter Mathilde Marchesi December 12, 1888, pg 47.
    (5) A. Murphy, Melba: A Biography, Doubleday, Page & Co, New York, 1909, pg 39.
    (6) A. Murphy, op. cit., pg 40.
    (7) N. Melba, op. cit., pg 57-58.
    (8) N. Melba, op. cit., 60 and 61.

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