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A Sovereign of Song


(From advance sheets of “Stars of the Opera,” by Mabel Wagnalls, revised edition.)

All critics agree that the quality of Mme. Melba’s voice has never in the annals of music been surpassed.

In furnishing her name, which is a diminutive of Melbourne, the far continent has sprung into a musical prominence it never before attained. From a land at the outer edge of the world a “sovereign of song has arisen.”

melba.jpgIt would of course be artistic and effective to picture Melba’s early life as one of struggle and privation, but search as one will not a crust or a tatter turns up in her history. She never shivered on a door-step or sang for pennies in the street! Let the dismal truth be told—her father was wealthy, very wealthy, and his gifted daughter never lacked for anything.

Nellie Mitchell, as she was known in those days, was gifted not only with a voice but with a splendid determination to work. She practiced diligently in the line of her ambition and learned to play admirably on the piano, violin and pipe-organ. All this in spite of the diversions and enticements of young companions and monied pastimes. Wealth as well as poverty may serve to hinder progress and it is much to Melba’s credit that she had the perseverance to work unceasingly.

Even at school, during recess hours, she was always humming and trilling. This latter trick was a source of puzzling delight to her comrades, who never tired of hearing that “funny noise she made in her throat.” The marvelous Melba trill, you see, was a gift of the gracious fates at her birth—just back of the silver spoon in her mouth was tucked a golden trill.

The story of her childhood is best told in her own words:

“My mother was an accomplished musician, and it was her playing that first gave me an idea of the charms of music. I was forever humming everything I heard, and she was always telling me to stop, for my noise was unceasing! My favorite song was ‘Comin’ Thro the Rye.’ I also liked ‘Nellie Bly, because my own name was Nellie!” Incidentally it was learned that dolls were tabooed by this prima donna in pinafores.

“I hated dolls. My favorite toys were horses, wooden horses. One given me by my father’s secretary was almost an idol to me for years.”

Recurring to the subject of music Mme. Melba continued:

“I didn’t sing much when a child, I only hummed. A child’s voice should be guarded. I consider the ensemble singing in schools as ruinous to good voices. Each one tries to outdo the other, and the tender vocal chords are strained and tired. I did not seriously study singing until after my marriage at seventeen years of age.”

The preparation for her career was neither long nor arduous. She studied nine months with Marchesi, then was ready to make her debut in Brussels as a star. All things came easy to her because her voice never had to be “placed;” her tones were jewels already set.

“The first opera I ever heard was ‘Rigoletto.’ That was in Paris when I was studying. What did I think of it? Well—I dare say my inexperience made me very bumptious, but I remember thinking I could do it better myself!

“I don’t get a chance to hear many operas. ‘Lucia’ I have never yet heard, although that is the rôle associated with my name.”

When asked her opinion of the new gramophones and the wonderful records of her voice Mme. Melba spoke with enthusiasm.

“They are indeed a remarkable achievement. I am looking, however, for still greater improvements and am keenly interested in every new development.”

A matter of “keen interest” it must indeed be to every prima donna of to-day—this amazing, magic trumpet that can record the subtle, individual quality of a singer’s voice, and give it gloriously forth again whenever desired. By means of this weird invention the present vintage of fine voices can be bottled up like rare wine and poured out in future years. More wonderful still—like the widow’s cruse this trumpet never grows empty—from its uptilted mouth the flow of song will stream on continuously, if so desired and directed. It is enough to make poor Jenny Lind and other long-silent singers turn restlessly in their graves: they died too soon to profit by the power of this recording trumpet, which surely has no rival save the one that Gabriel blows.

Some further random questions about the experiences of a prima donna elicited the following item. Mme. Melba smiled as she told it:

“Yes—I have some queer things said to me. Just recently a young girl of eighteen who wished me to hear her sing assured me that there were only two fine voices in the world to-day—hers and mine!” “But—I must tell you”—she added brightly, “the most graceful compliment ever paid me. It was by an Irish woman who in commenting on the lack of song in the native birds of Australia pointed out that they had treasured up all their melody through the ages and then had given it to me.”

Someone has said that the ease of Melba’s singing is “positively audacious!” She certainly makes light of the most time-honored difficulties. She will start a high note without any preparation, with apparently no breath and no change of the lips. Faint at first as the “fabric of a dream,” it is followed by the gradual grandeur of a glorious tone straight and true as a beam of light, until finally it attains the full zenith of a crescendo.

In a bewildering variety of ways, writers have attempted to describe the wonder of her voice:

“It seems to develop in the listener a new sense; he feels that each tone always has been, and always will be. She literally lays them out on the air.”

“Her tone-production is as much a gift as the voice itself.”

“The beauty of her voice is only equaled by the perfection of her art.”

“In future years the present time may be referred to musically as, ‘in the days of Melba.’”


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