Wednesday, January 15, 2014

There is nothing like a Dame: Kiri Te Kanawa as Nellie Melba in Downton Abbey

In the second episode of Downton Abbey's fourth season, Cora engages a famous opera singer to give a private recital at her house party. New Zealand's Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (pictured above and at right with Dame Maggie Smith) portrays Australia's Dame Nellie Melba, the first character on the show who was a real-life person. At Downton she sings a program of art songs and opera arias (to the gratification of the Dowager Duchess, she eschews German lieder!) One of the most ravishing snippets we hear are strains of Puccini's "O mio babbino caro," which I once had the great fortune of hearing Te Kanawa perform live. (You can enjoy the entire aria on her classic recording Kiri Te Kanawa Sings Verdi & Puccini Arias.)
Mary Evans Picture Library
Melba would have been relatively long in the tooth in the early '20s (she was born in 1861), but no matter. She was still a catch who had spent decades in the international limelight! The following highlights from an article by Sophia Lambton on the vocal legend in Musical Opinion will give you an idea of why Helen Porter née Mitchell Armstrong became an opera immortal, as well as a "professional celebrity."
If Callas was a goddess, and Colbran was a siren three hundred years before; and Malibran an angel, and Viardot an enigma, then Melba was a home diva; a household name…. If America's sweetheart was Judy Garland, or Shirley Temple, or any of the 'girl next door' types that Hollywood wanted to portray, then Australia had Nellie Melba — and like the cinema stars after her, she conquered the world…. [She was] one of the last bel canto advocates in prima donna history before the Callas revival of the late 1940s…. One critic described her trill as being "like a string of pearls."….She didn't become a great artist, and it didn't appear that at any point of her life she intended to be. She assumes two roles in one: an adored and world-renowned prima donna and a professional celebrity…. In Paris in 1889, she received three curtain calls after the mad scene of Lucia. On June 28th of that year, she was commanded to sing a concert for Queen Victoria…. Reviewers wrote of her being "unsurpassed in the purity and sweetness of her tones". She undertook studies in acting with Sarah Bernhardt, the great tragédienne, and continued to learn Gounod's heroines with the composer himself…..
Not only was Melba a rare prima donna who enjoyed the limelight of scandal and her papers gracing the pages for all the wrong reasons, she made a cult of being celebrated. In 1890 she took on a lover, Louis Philippe Robert, Duc d'Orléans, but not because she ceded to an irresistible temptation, rather than because it was a 'thing to do' among aristocracy, and he was after all, a prince - the great-grandson of Louis Philippe I, one-time king of France…. She sang La Bohème with Caruso and earned the praise of Mary Garden, known by some to be one of the first genuine singing actresses. Garden wrote of her Mimi: 'The note came floating over the auditorium of Covent Garden: it left Melba's throat, it left Melba's body, it left everything, and came over like a star and passed us in our box, and went out into the infinite."….In 1926 she became a Dame Grand Cross of the Order of the British Empire; the highest ranking kind of honour for a dame.


  1. Thanks for the post JP, while I haven't watched much of Downton Abbey, I am a fan of opera. I really appreciate the Nellie Melba Youtube posting, thanks again.

  2. I know you had to refrain yourself from saying that Nellie Melba was a peach, or the toast of the town.

    1. That's what canny readers are here for!