Melba becomes a professional singer
Back in Melbourne, Nellie was determined to pursue her operatic dream and returned to singing lessons with Pietro Cecchi. George followed and when not horse dealing or working on other projects visited his son at Doonside.
Melba threw herself into her music and singing and received invitations to sing at private homes. She sang at Government House and the encouragement and advice she received from the Governor’s wife (Lady Loch) inspired her to continue working hard.
Cecchi organised Melba’s first engagement, a benefit concert at Melbourne Town Hall on Saturday, May 17, 1884 for Herr Elsasser.
Carl Gottlieb Elsasser was a Hungarian composer and conductor living in Melbourne. For many years he had conducted the Liedertafel concerts and was now in poor health.
The Liedertafels were a vital part of the musical community of the time and were crucial to Nellie at the time and later in her career in Australia. The concert was a great success and Mrs Armstrong received her first criticism of her career.
“Mrs Armstrong, whom her friends have long known as Nellie Mitchell, and who it may here be said is both a vocalist of the first rank, a pianiste of surpassing finish, and a painter of more than amateur excellence, but who until last Saturday night has most modestly confined her performances in all of these several capacities to private circles, and who consented to go out of her delightful domestic circle only in the holy cause of charity, If therefore her cusses as a vocalist had been but moderate, she would have merited the warmest recognition for placing her services at the disposal of the Elsasser Fund committee, but when it is said that she sings like one picked out of ten thousand the obligations due to her are obviously all the greater. The Elsasser concert, therefore, if it were to be remembered in no other way, will never be forgotten on account of the delightful surprise afforded by Mrs Armstrong’s singing, and everybody who heard her will desire to hear her again and everybody who did not hear her is at this moment consumed with regrets at not having been present.” (1)
The Argus also reported the concert:
“Mrs Armstrong (nee Mitchell), was the only non-professional singer present”. She both surprised and delighted all her hearers. She chose the elaborate cavatina ‘Ah! Fors’ è lui’ from the second act of the opera, La Traviata. She commenced with something like hesitancy of manner, but as she proceeded, this evidence of nervousness wore away, and she developed such clear and high and flexible soprano voice, and such well-trained method as a vocalist, that all hearers who remembered the best performance of that opera in this city were caught in the charm that belongs only to good singing… so that when she came to the conclusion of her song, instead of only that modified approval which greets the best of amateur efforts, were awarded, with good reason, the enthusiastic applause which is the much-prized reward of an accomplished artist.” (2)
Also part of the concert was John Lemmone a flautist from Adelaide. He was to become one of the most influential men in Melba’s life.
After the concert, Melba felt there may have been something in her voice however:
“You must remember that I had never heard a great singer in my life, that I have never been to an opera, that I had no possible means of comparing my own voice with the voices of singers who had already made their reputation. But still, I felt, the people of Melbourne could not be after all so very different from the people of Europe, and if I could have this success before them, surely I could at least command a hearing in other places. And from now onwards, to go to England was my ruling ambition.” (3)
Until she could find a way of getting to England, Nellie took on more engagements with the Liedertafel and other concerts.
On Saturday, January 24, 1885 Nellie performed at a concert at Sorrento on Melbourne’s Mornington Peninsula to raise money for a fence around the local cemetery.
While there is conflict over who organised the concert – Nellie or George Coppin, the event is mentioned in most Melba biographies, possibly because it was mentioned at length in the first published Melba book, that of Agnes Murphy.
However, the venture did have a couple of problems to overcome as Murphy wrote:
She had used up all available funds on the expenses of preparation, and when the bill-posting came to be done, had no money in hand to pay for that item. Unwilling to sacrifice valuable time and burden the concert with any unavoidable expenses, she at once resolved on a novel means of escape from the dilemma, and, armed with a brush and a pot of paste, she went out after sunset and did the bill-posting herself, making a particularly good show on the cemetery fence that was to be repaired by her efforts.
Held at the Mechanics’ Institute, there were 12 items on the program. Nellie sang `The angel at the window’ (Tours), ‘Sing sweet bird’ (Ganz) and the finale, a duet of `Oh Maritana!’ (Wallace)with Mr Cadden.
The newspaper accounts described the concert as quite above the ordinary amateur standard, and upwards of £20 was realised for the cemetery funds as the outcome of her good management.
For more details go to Radic pg 19 – Hetherington pg 43 – Murphy pg 11 (see reference list at bottom of page).
The Sorrento Concert program
Johann Kruse concert tour
A young entrepreneur George Musgrove who later became part of J.C. Williamson, offered Nellie her first professional engagement – £20 a week for a season with the Johann Kruse concert party.
An Australian, Kruse returned to Australia in June 1885, did the tour and left for Europe early August. Concerts were given in Melbourne, Sandhurst (Bendigo) and Sydney in June and July. The Kruse tour received good reviews and made Nellie all the more determined to head to Europe.
Afterwards Nellie again sang with the Liedertafel and at Glen’s Inaugural Concert and at Mr Hertz’ Benefit Concert. She had sung in Sydney, Bendigo, Ballarat and several other country towns. (4)
Hetherington wrote that in her first year, Nellie earned about £750. (5)
For the details of some of her performances from 1884 until her departure overseas go to: Concerts 1884 to 1885
At the end of 1885, Nellie accepted the paid position of soprano soloist at St Francis’ Roman Catholic Church in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne. The Catholic Church frowned on the appointment as Nellie was a Presbyterian. For Nellie it was a valuable chance and throughout her life she continually supported many activities of the Catholic Church, particularly the nuns at Lilydale. Nellie had gained the position through her performances with the Liedertafels. The church’s director was conductor and composer Alfred Plumpton and his wife Madame Carlotta Tasca was the organist.
However, Nellie’s stay with the church was shortlived and at last she had the chance to achieve her ambition to travel overseas.
Bound for Europe
Her father David Mitchell had been appointed Victorian Commissioner to the Indian and Colonial Exhibition to be held in London in May 1886. This was a great honour and a sign of the great respect the government of the day had for David Mitchell.
The family were to leave in March 1886, and David Mitchell who was taking Annie and Bella, invited Nellie, Charles, George to accompany him, Annie and Bella. Nellie immediately started work to raise money for her stay in Europe.
Although she only spent four months with St Francis’ Church, the choir presented her with an illuminated address. Following a short concert tour, a series of farewell concerts were held – a tradition established to help artists while studying overseas.
January 22, 1886
Nellie sang at her first farewell at the Sydney Masonic Hall in the presence of Governor and Lady Carrington. (6)
The program included Melba’s former teacher at PLC Madame Charbonnet-Kellerman.
Review of Sydney concert published January 23, 1886
February 22, 1886
Alfred Plumpton and Madame Tasca organised her second farewell concert at St Francis’ Church. Nellie appeared as the soloist in Haydn’s Imperial Mass and end the concert with Gounod’s ‘Ave Maria’ (7)
February 23, 1886
C. Tait arranged Nellie’s third farewell concert at the Melbourne Town Hall. (8)
In its edition of March 4, 1886, Melbourne Punch published a profile of Mrs Armstrong and predicted that the distinction of her future career will reflect honour on the colony of her birth. The same edition also published possibly the first pen and ink sketch of Melba and captioned it: Mrs. Armstrong, the Australian Prima Donna.
Profile of Mrs Armstrong in Melbourne Punch
March 6, 1886
Her final concert was attended by the Victorian Governor and Lady Loch but netted only £67 4s 8d. (9)
See review of concert published in the Argus of Monday, March 8, 1886.
(1) N. Melba, Melodies and Memories, Thornton Butterworth Ltd, London, 1925, pg. 21.
(2) The Argus May 19, 1884 from P. Vestey, Melba A Family Memoir pg. 23.
(3) N. Melba op. cit.
(4) P. Vestey, Melba: A Family Memoir, Pamela Vestey, Coldstream, Melbourne 2000, pg. 24.
(5) J. Hetherington, Melba: A biography, F.W. Cheshire Pty Ltd, Melbourne 1967, pg 42.
(6) T. Radic, Melba The Voice of Australia, The Macmillan Company of Australia Ltd, Melbourne, 1986 pg. 35.
(7) T. Radic, op. cit.
(8) T. Radic, op. cit., pg. 36.
(9) T. Radic, op. cit., p 36.