History Detective

$100 Note Sing like Dame Nellie Melba

Episode Summary

Meet Dame Nellie Melba, the woman who appears on the Australian $100 note and learn some tips on how to become an opera diva.

Episode Notes

Dame Nellie Melba is the woman on the $100 note and was the most famous opera diva of her time. In this episode we do not just learn about Dame Nellie, but we learn from her guide to singing The Melba Method.

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All theme music written and performed by Kelly Chase.

Episode Transcription

Hi, this is Kelly Chase and you are listening to History Detective, a podcast where I delve into the past to uncover the mysteries of history and this is the final episode of the All Cashed Up series and we are finishing on the $100 note and the original Aussie opera diva, Dame Nellie Melba.

I first heard about Dame Nellie Melba through my love of crackers and dip. You see, when I was growing up in the 80s, there were these crunchy little crackers that looked like a tiny piece of bread. I discovered that they were called Melba toast, after the famous prima donna Dame Nellie Melba. Now the word prima donna has 2 meanings. You might associate it with someone who thinks that they are talented and has a temperamental personality. But the other meaning, the one that Nellie Melba fits into, means the female lead singer in an opera. 

You would never guess, but Nellie Melba was born in the 1860s. Because this is the last of the All Cashed Up season let me remind you of the other stars of the money who were born on the 1860s. From the $10, both Banjo Patterson and Mary Gilmore, from the $50 Edith Cowan, and both John Monash and Dame Nellie Melba from the $100. Nellie was actually born in Melbourne in the same year as Edith Cowan, 1861. And Nellie Melba was not her name. Her name was originally Helen Porter Mitchell, but when she moved to Europe to complete some operatic training, she adopted the stage name Nellie Melba- the Melba part was a tribute to the city of Melbourne where she was born.

There are so many interesting things about Nellie Melba’s life, there is her troubled marriage to a chap named Charles Nesbitt Frederick Armstrong who was a trained boxer and often became domestically violent towards Nellie, there was her public affair with Prince Philippe, Duke of Orléans and the fact that her husband challenged him to a duel.

Her concerts would attract between 4000 and 10000 people, also that 

She was also into the women’s suffrage movement and was an avid supporter of conscription and did fundraising concerts for WWI.  She was also the first Australian to feature on the cover of Time Magazine. She sang the national anthem at the opening of Parliament House in Canberra in 1925. A shout out to all the people at the now Museum of Australian Democracy.

The thing that always comes up when people talk about Nellie is her incredible vocal range. Almost 3 octaves. Now if you don’t know what an octave is, it is a series of 8 notes in a scale. For example: from here… to here…

Nellie full singing range was from B flat below middle C (here) to F two octaves up (here). 

In my research for this episode, I found a book that Nellie Melba wrote in the 1920s it was called The Melba Method. She released the book while she was on her farewell tour of England, which was quite a savvy business move. I am not sure which farewell tour; you see she had so many farewell concerts that her name became the butt of the joke. They would say, “More farewell concerts than Nellie Melba.” This book that she wrote was a guide on how you too could sing opera like Dame Nellie Melba. The book actually caused a little bit of controversy amongst singing teachers of the world who disagreed with a) her method and b) that you could learn from a book. And I kind of agree with the people in the B camp, because I found a copy of the book and tried to learn from it, and it did not go well.

You see my original thought for this episode was to live by her book for two weeks, following her advice and completing all of the exercises and see if I could cut it as an opera singer. But I came across a few problems and one of them being - and don’t tell anyone- that I don’t really enjoy singing operatically. 

But maybe you do, so what follows is some of the advice that Dame Nellie Melba imparted in the Melba Method.

Oh and I forgot to mention that she has a section called “Notes for the teacher or accompanist.” For the record, I do not have a personal opera coach nor my own personal piano player, and my own piano skills are very rudimentary, so when I actually tried to read the sheet music and play the piano accompaniments, let’s just say that it was not ideal.

Anyway, one of her first pieces of advice is, “In order to sing well, it is necessary to sing easily.” That seems like excellent advice, to which I whole heartedly agree but, ummm, how does one sing easily Nellie? 

She mentions how often musicians and singers make it look easy and makes the point that we should sing without unnecessary muscular action. And this next little quote is gold, “Everyone is self-conscious instead of being conscious of self. The former is fatal to success. The latter is entirely necessary.” So basically, stop caring what others think send your attention to yourself. She then discusses the role of fear and how that makes you stiffen your muscles. So to sing like Nellie you need to be self-aware, and let go of your fear to avoid any muscle tension.

Her advice on diet is as follows, “Food should be plain and nourishing, every type of rich food and sweet should be avoided.” That is excellent advice and when I saw an Ear Nose and Throat surgeon when I was having trouble with my voice, he told me the exact thing and gave me a list of foods to avoid. These things included chocolate, coffee, spicy foods, acidic foods, garlic, onions, fatty foods and tomatoes. The only problem is that sweet, rich foods are kind of delicious. Her other little zinger is “cocktails and cigarettes must not even be in the singer’s vocabulary.” Which again is very is very good advice, and I am sure if she were writing today, she would include vaping on the no go list.

Nellie explains about the importance of having control over your breath. It is not the air in your lungs that causes voice, but the air that is leaving that causes the vocal cords to vibrate. 

Her breathing rules are:

  1. It takes only a little breath to set the chords moving
  2. The less breath you use the better the tone will be
  3. And never lift your chest and shoulders, breathing should be done in the diaphragm.

Her next piece of advice is that to sing well you must sing happily and happiness relaxes the muscles and fear clenches them.

In another piece of advice, she wants you to treat the music with respect by analysing the lyrics, enunciating the words and pronouncing words correctly and I quote her here, “so that educated ears may not be irritated.” 

Another of her rules is that a singer must be healthy and fit and take regular exercise daily. She specifically says that walking is OK but it is not enough and that you should have a teacher.

She also suggests not relying on others but training your own ears to listen to your mistakes. And that you should not mimic others but find your own voice.

And finally, never practice without concentrating. But don’t force it, be still and quiet focus on the music.

The next section is about stance. You need to have weight evenly distributed on both feet and put your shoulders back. This ideally should be done in front of a mirror.

She also insists that practice be regular and to write up a timetable.

So, if you missed all that, I have distilled it down.

Eat healthy, don’t drink or smoke, keep fit, relax and sing like no-one’s listening, understand the meaning of what you are singing, breath into your diaphragm and practice often.

And in case you are wondering, that singing you can hear in the background. That is me trying to relax and sing opera like no one is listening.

This is Kelly Chase, on the case.