Teaching Melba


Throughout her life and her professional career, Melba was always a willing pupil happy to learn anything that would improve her performance on the stage.

While Melba gives most credit to Marchesi, as she should, there were many others who provided invaluable training, particularly in her early days.

Her parents and her aunts were her first teachers who developed in young Nellie a love of music both singing and playing the piano.

Mr Guernett, Mary Ellen Christian, Alice Charbonnet, Pietro Cecchi, Mathilda Marchesi and Sarah Bernhart to name just some.

Melba was also fortunate that many of the composers of the great operas were still living and was able to work with them when learning their operas.

These included: Bemberg, Puccini, Gounod and Tosti.

Nellie's teachers at school

Mr Guernett

Years later as Melba, Nellie remembered one of her first professional teachers Mr Guernett.

Madame Melba never forgets her Australian friends. By last mail, says the "Portland Observer," she forwarded to Mr Guernett, one of her old teachers, a novel cigarette case, on which were engraved facsimiles of the signatures of some well-known operatic artists.

In asking Mr Guernett to accept this small souvenir, she writes: - "Do you remember teaching a little girl the harmonium at Leigh-house, Richmond? If you do remember her, I wonder if you know I was that naughty little girl. How frightened I was of you, and yet you were very kind. I am just off to America. I may go to South America from there till August next year, for which I will receive £40,000 - not bad for an Australian."

The letter is dated Paris, Oct., 1896. (1)

The newly established Presbyterian Ladies' College at East Melbourne offered a comprehensive curriculum and Nellie took lessons from two talented ladies – Mary Ellen Christian and Alice Charbonnet.

Mary Ellen Christian

Mary Ellen Christian was born in Quebec, Canada and educated in London Mary Ellen Christian was a pupil of Manuel Garcia the younger at the Royal Academy of Music.

As Therese Radic points out, it was through Madame Christian that Melba established the connection with the great European traditions of singing.

Christian had a phenomenal range (from D in the bass to the soprano high B), easy production and a vocal style described by The Times as 'a dramatic talent which any artist in London might envy'. (2)

She had won the Westmoreland Scholarship and been awarded the Cipriani Potter exhibition at the RAM.

Mary Christian had a brief but brilliant London-based career before a serious respiratory illness forced her to migrate to Australia in 1871 on medical advice. (3)

While abandoning her career, Mary Christian appeared as a concert singer and as a soloist with the Melbourne Philharmonic and appeared with Nellie on the program for the Gottlieb Elsasser benefit organised by the Metropolitan Liedertafel. (4)

In 1894 she became sister Mary Paul of the Cross, a Sister of Charity and in 1905 founded the Garcia School of Music at Potts Point, Sydney which became a mecca for young Australia singers.

Of Nellie while at PLC Sister Mary Paul said:

"At that time her youthful voice boasted a sweetness in the lower register by which it resembled a violin tone of Kubelik in legato passages, a fact revealed to me years later which listening to a phonograph record. As Melba she lost the timbre in question under the training necessary to acquire the top notes characteristic of the coloratura repertoire." (5)

Sister Mary Paul died at St Vincent's College on May 31, 1941 aged 93 years.
Alice Charbonnet

Alice Charbonnet

Alice Charbonnet, later Alice Charbonnet-Kellerman was born on 12 October 1858 at Cincinnati, Ohio.

Her father was a French judge and the family lived in many countries. On returning to France she learnt music in Paris.

After her father's sudden death during his posting at Chief Justice in New Caledonia, Alice returned to Parish and gained admission to the Paris Conservatoire in 1876 to study piano and harmony.

She toured Australia in 1878 and received much acclaim. Later she worked at Allans' Music Warehouse as a demonstration pianist and gave piano lessons to Presbyerian Ladies' College students including Nellie Mitchell.

In 1882 she married Sydney violinist Frederick Kellerman and they had four children.

The couple established a music school in Philip Street, Sydney and Alice continued to appear on the concert scene.

In 1901 she returned alone to Melbourne and became a music teacher at Simpson's School, Mentone. She retired in 1907 and returned to Paris.

She died on June 1, 1914 aged 52 years.

Her eldest daughter, Annette Kellermann, became famous as a champion swimmer and diver, and later a vaudeville and film star in America. (6)

Pietro Cecchi

After leaving school Nellie continued her studies with Pietro Cecchi. Despite later conflict over payment for singing lessons, Cecchi had taught and encouraged Nellie; listened to her problems in her numerous letters he received and did organise for her to appear at the Elsasser concert on May 17, 1884 just two days before her 23rd birthday.

This performance for the Melbourne Liedertafel set her on the path to opera stardom.

Very little is known about Pietro Cecchi save he was an Italian tenor who arrived in Melbourne from California in 1871 or 1872 with the American soprano Agatha States. He decided to stay and started giving singing lessons. Pietro Cecchi

According to The Musical Times obituary, who referred to him as "the principal teacher of Madame Melba", Cecchi was a native of Rome and began his career as an architect in the service of Pope Pius IX. Mixed up in the Italian revolutionary movement of 1848, he was obliged to quit the Papal territory, and being gifted with a well cultivated tenor voice he tried his fortune on the operatic stage. He appeared in leading parts at Turin, at La Scala, Milan, and elsewhere in Italy with great success; he also toured in the United States and on several occasions sang in London. (7)

After her success under Marchesi, Melba always declined to give Cecchi credit for his teaching.

"I never did mention his name, in spite of the fact that when I had made my success I was constantly being asked who had first taught me the elements of singing. (8)

John Hetherington wrote Cecchi died at Melbourne on March 4, 1897 of a heart seizure bought on by the stress of appearing as a witness in a court action earlier in the day.

He had suffered heart complaint for a number of years.

The newspaper report of his death said:

"Signore Cecchi had sat down to dinner with the household, his dishes being on the table before him, when, in the middle of a sentence referred to the lawsuit, he suddenly stopped, drew a deep sign, and died sitting in his chair." (9)

Cecchi's death certificate shows he died at 43 Drummond Street, Carlton and was aged 68 years. His profession given was that of a Professor of Singing.

He was born in Rome, Italy. Only his mother's name is given that of Antonio Cecchi. He was single and was buried at Melbourne General Cemetery on March 6, 1897.

For five years he had suffered a heart condition. (10)

Mathilda Marchesi

Mathilda Marchesi

Mathilda Marchesi was more than a teacher to Melba. She provided her with enthusiasm and helped her develop the skills necessary to survive the new world Melba found herself in - artistic Europe of the 1880s.

Melba wrote:

"She was one of the greatest artists I have ever known. She was not only a superb technician; she had also a burning spirit of enthusiasm which made one feel even when one was singing a scale that one was singing something beautiful. (11)

"I could write pages about Madame Marchesi, for she was the first woman who really began my education.

"Not only was she my artistic mother- she was my guide and sponsor in other things as well. I knew nothing of life. I had no idea of the dangers and temptations which beset any young woman in Paris: such things simply did not occur to me. I was to all intents and purposes along in the world, nor had I the advantage of an independent income; for my Daddy (who had remained in London and would shortly be returning to Australia) had given me a certain sum of money which he told me must last until I began to earn my own living.

"You may imagine, therefore, the debt which I owed to Madame Marchesi, not only for encouraging me and teaching me, but for explaining to me the ways of the world. She did more than that. She endeavoured to give me a polish which I fear I sadly lacked. And her methods of doing so were sometimes so abrupt that although they were prompted by kindness, they upset me terribly." (12)

Born Mathilde Graumann in Frankfurt on March 24, 1821, she was the daughter of a wealthy merchant who lost his fortune in 1843. As a result, Mathilde took up music and studied singing in Vienna with Nicolai and Garcia in Paris in 1845.

In 1849 she moved to London and became a respected concert singer and performed in England, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland and France.

In 1852 she married Salvatore Marchesi, Cavaliere de Castrone and set up a school in Paris.

After time spent at the Cologne and Vienna conservatories in 1881 the family returned to Paris and the teaching of young singers.

Her experience, method of singing and success with singers made her the leading singing teacher of the 1880s and 1890s.

Their daughter Blanche Marchesi de Castone was born in Paris in 1863 and later became a singer and teacher.

Mathilde Marchesi in 1889.

In her autobiography published in 1897 Marchesi wrote of Nellie Melba:

"Madame Melba is to-day without rival on the lyric stage. As a vocalist she more resembles a bird than a human creature, and it is impossible to conceive anything more musical or more flexible than her marvellous voice, which is always as clear as a silver bell. I am only repeateing what the cricitcs of every country, in Europe and America, have written, when I say that unquestionably, as regards taste, style, and vocalization, this pupil of mine is superior to any living singer." (13)

Salvatore died at Paris on February 20, 1908 and Mathilde at Blanche's home in London on November 17, 1913.

Sarah Bernhardt

Sarah Bernhardt

It was the French dramatic actress Sarah Bernhardt who showed Melba the importance of dramatic interpretations of operatic roles and make-up and helped her with.

Melba herself tells the story of Bernhardt in Melodies and Memories:

"You sing like an angel. I want to teach you to act like an angel too. Listen." And then without more ado she started to go through with me the part of Marguerite in Faust. It was a revelation. Little points of the character which I had overlooked were made to live before my eyes. Subtle touches of gesture were introduced – all the more marvellous when one remembers that Sarah had never played the part herself, and had only see it once or twice on the stage. Nor was it merely an inspiration which she gave me. It was a very practical and essentially useful lesson. (14)

Sarah showed Melba the value of makeup:

"Bah! You make up your face like a school-girl. You have no idea how to do these things. You are too innocent. Take a lesson from me, the wicked on!"

And she took my face in her hands and proceeded to apply deft touches with rouge and blue pencil, with powder and lipstick, forbidding me as she do so to look in the glass until ti was all over. When it was over, she leapt down again, threw out her hands and said:

"Voila! Now you may look, my pretty!"

I looked in the glass, and I was astounded at the transformation which Sarah had effected. I turned to her and said:

"Ah! If you could only be here every night to do that!" (15)

Through the Paris Opera House, Melba found a dancer willing to teach her about makeup:

"For a whole month I went to her every day, experimenting with grease paints under different conditions, and by the end of the month there was not much to know about make-up which I did not know."

Sarah Bernhardt, who gave her name to the theatre, was born in Paris in on October 23, 1844 as an illegitimate child to a Dutch courtisane, Judith van Hard. Sarah entered the Comèdie Française at 18 but did not stay long for having slapped a permanent member of the troup.

She only returned in 1872 following her remarkable role as the Queen Marie in Victor Hugo's play Ruy Blas at the Thèatre de l'Odèon. She became a member of the Comèdie Française in 1875.

In 1876 where she quickly established herself as the leading actress of the day. (16)

She left the Comèdie Française in 1880 and started a series of long international tours (nine in America where she discovered that the most popular roles in Europe were not necessarily so popular in the US). As Director of the Renaissance Theatre she played in Lorenzaccio and La Ville Morte.

Sarah rented the Thèatre des Nations in 1898 which took her name from 1949 until 1967 when it became the Thèatre de la Ville.

Sarah continued to act in spite of having her right leg amputated when she was 71 years old in 1915. She died in Paris on March 26, 1923. (17)


(1) Lilydale Express, December 24, 1896 from V. Sheehan, As It Happened The history of Coldstream, Gruyere, Yering and Killara Volume 1 From Settlement to 1900, Lilydale & District Historical Society, 2001, pg. 49.
(2) T. Radic, Melba The Voice of Australia, The Macmillan Company of Australia Ltd, Melbourne, 1986 pg. 14.
(3) T. Radic, op. cit.
(4) T. Radic. Op. cit., pg. 31.
(5) T. Radic, op. cit., pg 15.
(6) For more information, go to http://www.musicaustralia.org
(7) The Musical Times, May 1, 1897 page 338)
(8) N. Melba, Melodies and Memories, Thornton Butterworth Ltd, London, 1925, pg. 20.
(9) J. Hetherington, Melba: A biography, F.W. Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne 1967, pg. 47.
(10) Victorian Death Certificate No 854.
(11) Melba op. cit., pg. 31.
(12) Melba, op. cit. pg. 32.
(13) M. Marchesi, Marchesi and Music, Harper & Brothers, New York 1898, pg 256-257.
(14) Melba, opt cit. pg. 62.
(15) Melba, op. cit., pg. 63.
(16) Go to http://www.spartacus.schoolnet.co.uk/ACbernhardt.htm
(17) For more information go to: http://www.paris.org/AfterHours/Ville