Melba Recordings

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Knowledge Cities World Summit - November 2010

Wednesday, 3 November 2010 - 10:58am

Founder and CEO of Melba Recordings , Maria Vandamme, spoke at Knowledge Cities World Summit 2010. Here is a transcript:

Imagine having a father who built you a city church – Scots Church in Collins Street - in which you could pray, a college – PLC- where you were educated, a hotel - Menzies’s - where you would stay on return trips home, and an Exhibition Building, now world heritage listed,  where you would sing to thousands, at the height of an international career as a diva;
This father – Melba’s father, was the once penniless Scottish immigrant David Mitchell.

MELBA was the greatest opera diva of her day. She remains the most famous woman Australia has produced. Melba is a national icon, ranked with Ned Kelly, Don Bradman and Phar Lap in the popular imagination.

Before the era of self promoting celebrity – the J Lo’s, Madonna’s and Streisands, there was Melba, the diva more terrible than the rest, the Tyrannosaurus Rex of the opera world in England, Europe and America. Never before or after Nellie Melba has any opera singer had her power: She dominated the end of an era – the so-called Golden Age of Song. Respected by the Vanderbilts and Rothschilds who counted her as a friend, Nellie was the reigning Queen of opera, feted by royalty and treated like royalty. Nellie was prepared to do anything to get to the top. She had inner steel. She took the world by the throat and shook it till she got what she wanted. 

Her name guaranteed success to any operatic venture.  The American entrepreneur, Oscar Hammerstein the first, persuaded her to head his new Manhattan opera company set up to rival the New York Met. With Nellie as its spearhead, she and Oscar succeeded in giving the imperious Met a bloody nose. Their assault on the bastion of New York society was a triumph.
The contrasts in Nellie’s personality were extreme. She was very naughty, very subversive and very grand. Nellie was both a snob and an iconoclast who was given to colourful language and risky epithets. ‘There are two things I like stiff”, she said, and jelly is one of them.’
Nellie was irresistible because she acted so impulsively. She was at the same time as imperious as Queen Victoria, and a larrikin. She swore, she whistled, and chewed wattle gum. Nellie was driven by an unshakable confidence that the world was her oyster. It never occurred to her that she couldn’t have the lot – she always did just as she pleased and loved to flout convention. The legacy of her upbringing was her indomitable confidence that success was her birthright. This gave her the personal power to achieve and contribute more than anyone could imagine possible.

Though regal, she was also one of us. Nellie was always prepared to spit in the eye of authority. As with Donald Trump, we watch open mouthed at her excesses and outrageous behaviour. Like Hyacinthe Bouquet and Dame Edna, she was frequently inappropriate, but hilarious. It was said to be impossible NOT to have fun in her presence.

Her brilliance put Australia on the world map. Here she was denigrated as being vain, vulgar, haughty a snob, a reputed drunkard, a runaway wife and “an unfit mother”. As a divorcee she was deemed morally suspect and, as the mistress of the Pretender to the French throne, she was seen as politically dangerous. Their affair almost brought down diplomatic relations between England and France. But although the Australian press gave her a very hard time, and for all her notoriety at home, she never lost her affection for her country or her gratitude for the opportunities it had given her. She said - ‘If you wish to understand me at all you must understand first and foremost that I am an Australian.’ She very much reflected the vitality of the city whose name she took, which we celebrate this evening.

The most modern city of his time offered Nellie’s wealthy father opportunities without which Melba would not have achieved what she did. David Mitchell one of the creators of Marvellous Melbourne, built in the elaborate Italianate style. He was one of a new generation of middle class Melbournians whose aspirations went beyond brick and stone to embrace the arts – especially music.
When Nellie Mitchell, by then Mrs Armstrong, made her operatic debut in Brussels, she decided to take a stage name that reflected her origins and an appreciation of the place that had given her such a musical grounding.

She branded herself as Madame Melba in a lifelong salute to her home town. Wherever that name went, so too, did Melbourne’s. It was advertising of a kind money couldn’t buy because it was Melba who put her country on the world’s cultural map. 

Along with her fame and success was Melba’s very pronounced sense of noblesse oblige. She felt very keenly the responsibility to give back to the country and city she loved, donated her services as a teacher to many, and worked tirelessly for the war effort.
In this spirit, and with the support of Melbourne’s marvellous leading philanthropists, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, Jeanne Pratt, Primrose Potter, Marigold Southey and Dr Douglas Mitchell, the Melba Foundation was established to promote Australian musicians on the world stage.

A recent report in The Age claimed that Australia’s image internationally is that of the world’s dumb Blonde. We at the Melba Foundation feel that the current focus on lifestyle and sport is to the detriment of the wealth of fine musicians this country is producing.  Think Joan Sutherland – the Voice of the Century!
Nellie dominated with her own unique blend of absolute power and sheer joie de vivre. She was also always on the look-out for the NEXT Melba. So are we.