Tuesday, July 31, 2012


A question lately cropped up in connection with Madame Melba as to whether fame and celebrity are not essentially the same thing. My feeling is that they are different. The Oxford English Dictionary is undecided: “famous, adj. 1a” persons are “celebrated in fame or public report; much talked about, renowned,” while persons of “celebrity, n. 4” are much extolled or talked about; famous, notorious. Nowadays I think there is a more nuanced distinction to be made. Surely today celebrities, simply because so many people aspire to that dubious condition, are not often hugely or even genuinely famous―in other words immediately recognizable to millions. And certainly not all famous people could ever be described as celebrities. That Melba, however, was both extremely famous and almost the embodiment of musical celebrity cannot be disputed. With people such as Bernhardt, Pavlova, and Mrs. Langtry, I would argue, Melba helped to create our modern concept of a celebrity, extending in her case far, far beyond the footlights of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. According to the Argus (Melbourne) on Saturday, November 17, 1906 (p. 6):
In the last Issue of the World to hand is a very interesting sketch of Madame Melba―one of the series of “Celebrities at Home.” The following are extracts:―

It was when she was 13 that she first expressed a wish to become a public singer. Although her parents were very musical―and to this day her father has an excellent singing voice―the family rose up in opposition, and the very mention of the stage or platform was avoided in her presence. Still, her dreams of a public career were not disturbed, and at every possible opportunity she got audiences together, and into her schoolgirl efforts “put all the enthusiasm of a prima donna,” to use her own happy phrase. Once during the holidays she was staying in a seaside resort in Victoria, a picturesque little place named Sorrento. There she ruffled the family calm by proposing to organize a concert for a new fence to the local cemetery. The cause appealed to the sympathies of her father, and she obtained from him a certain amount of money for preliminary expenses. Hints not few or far between from friends that this course was sure to result in her ending as a professional singer caused the strings of the paternal purse to be drawn at a critical moment. The bills had been printed, but there was no money for posting them, and all applications for an advance for the purpose were met with a blunt refusal. There was only one way out of the dilemma. The future prima donna went to the kitchen of the hotel in which she was staying, made friends with a maid, who mixed a bucket of paste, and that night, with a pail and brush in one hand and a bundle of bills in the other, she went out and “billed” Sorrento, not forgetting the fence of the cemetery in whose honor the entertainment was eventually held, with splendid results both financial and artistic.

That Mme. Melba is the most brilliant, as she was the favorite, pupil of Mme. [Mathilde] Marchesi everyone knows. When she resolved to come to Europe to study, the wife of the Austrian Consul in Melbourne offered her a letter to the great teacher, and it was gratefully accepted. Before going to Paris, however the diva came to London. She was introduced to Sir Arthur Sullivan, and sang the great air from Traviata to him. He nodded approval. “You have a very good voice,” he said. “If you will study for a year you may be able to sing in my Mikado.

Then Mme Melba went to Signor [Alberto] Randegger, who was unable to find a place for her, a fact on which, with the musician’s real generosity, he has always prided himself, for he declares it was far better for the young singer to go abroad, as nobody could then have done for her what Mme. Marchesi did. When the then Mrs. Armstrong―for the name of Melba had not been thought of―first had her voice tried, Mme. Marchesi was in ecstasies. “Salvatore, Salvatore!” she cried to her husband in the next room, “viens, viens: enfin une étoile!” Then came the question of lessons. Mme. Marchesi got out her book and looked down her lists. “I have no room for you, Mrs. Armstrong, in this class.” She turned over the page. “No room in this class.” She turned over the page again. “No room in this class.” “Oh, but Madame, you must take me,” cried the would-be pupil. “Well, my dear,” said Mme. Marchesi, “you must come into the opera class.” And in the opera class Mme. Melba immediately began her studies with Rigoletto. It was a case of working every day and all day, and the result of nine months’ work was that the prima donna had a repertoire of 10 operas. She was not only the most brilliant but the quickest pupil Mme. Marchesi ever had.

It is a striking characteristic of Mme. Melba’s that for the last 19 years she has never signed a contract with any operatic management. She gets a letter asking if she will sing a certain number of times. If she replies in the affirmative the matter is considered settled, and no further steps are taken on either side to make the contract binding. Except to go to sing her parts she troubles herself in no way with the arrangements, yet such is the irony of fate that she gets the credit for doing everything at Covent Garden. If a prima donna does not come up to expectations and is not re-engaged, the champions of the lady invariably declare that it is “because Melba won’t have her there.” If someone succeeds, her detractors declare she ought not to be there, for she is not fit for the position, and “she would not hold it if it were not for Melba.” The amusing thing is that the same is said with regard to the basses and the baritones, in whose coming or going the prima donna could have no possible interest whatever. These insinuations might affect a less large-hearted woman. They only amuse Mme. Melba, who shrugs her shoulders and remarks: “I don’t care what people say, so long as I sing well and I am happy.”

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