Now that the 150 candles have been blown out and the streamers have all been taken down, I thought it might be a good idea to highlight a few of our more “sober” Melba resources, in honour of the Dame’s landmark birthday last week.
I think that Michael Shmith put it best in the Australian Book Review (May, 2008) when he wrote of this major biography: “There is something of an art-restorer about Ann Blainey: she quietly and deftly, without putting herself in the frame, removes the patina of previous biographers or historical recollections, to recover layers that make one view the result in a different light.” Over the years Melba has certainly attracted enough stories, anecdotes, brickbats, praise, etc., etc., to fill an entire library, so the task of the scholarly biographer cannot have been an easy one. Ann Blainey take a bow!
Melba’s famous farewell appearance at Covent Garden, miraculously recorded, and featuring the Dame herself saying a few well chosen words. Now, precisely how many farewells did she actually make?
It was Clive James who called a volume of his autobiography Unreliable Memoirs, and I suspect that Melba’s telling of her life story might be worthy of a similar title. Still, as John Ford put it in the film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
Therese Radic has written a fine biography of Melba herself, as well as this lovely play set during Melba’s final concert with the diva looking back over her long career, revealing both public and private aspects of her celebrated life. Interestingly the play was commissioned by the marvellous singer/actress Helen Noonan, who performed the role of Melba in the original Playbox Theatre production in 1990.
And to end on a scurrilous note…..
Now I don’t know if this is true (and I can’t for the life of me remember where I heard it), but one of my favourite Melba stories relates to the famously controversial advice she gave to Dame Clara Butt prior to the great contralto’s visit to Australia: “Sing em’ muck!” Defending herself when asked about this comment Dame Nellie is said to have replied something along the lines of: From what I know of dear Clara’s repertoire, she would hardly need this advice……..