Sunday, 14 June 2020

Memories of Melba

Written by Seymour Hicks

 1 BannerMelba portrait by Sir John Longstaff (1923), National Gallery of Victoria & Grand Opera Season programme, Yarra Ranges Museum, reg. no. 6104.

In 1924 British actor-manager-playwright-author Sir Seymour Hicks (1871–1949) toured Australia and New Zealand with his wife, actress Ellaline Terriss (1871–1971) and daughter, Betty (who subsequently made her stage début in Melbourne), under the management of Sir Benjamin and John Fuller in partnership with Hugh J. Ward. The tour commenced at the “New” Palace Theatre, Melbourne on 23 February of that year with Hicks’ adaptation of the French farce The Man in Dress Clothes.

Concurrent with the Hickses’ tour (which included Sydney, Newcastle and Adelaide), was that of Dame Nellie Melba making the first of her “Farewell” tours of Australia under the management of J.C. Williamson Ltd., which launched at the newly re-christened ‘His’ Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne on 29 March. In later years Seymour Hicks wrote of his friendship with Melba in the chapter “Famous Ladies of the Stage” published in his part-novel Night Lights in 1938.

2 Seymour Hicks 1924Seymour Hicks, 1924. Private collection.A wag of a scribe once replied to his editor on being asked by him to write a set of Tabloid Biographies, giving intimate glimpses of well-known people, that he would rather not do so, as to tell the real truth about the famous would be either to make them delightfully infamous or duller than ditch-water, before he had spoiled a single page of his precious paper. I, however, do not share this merry fellow's opinion. This may be, of course, because on glancing at the list of ladies I have been bidden to remember, no single one could possibly be anything but "Pretty Thoughts" from the borders of Lavender, which trim the paths they have trodden in a garden which has “Rosemary” written across its lichen-covered gate.

As I sit wondering with whom and how to begin this series of reminiscences of famous ladies, my eye lights upon a treasured picture on which is written “With love from Nellie Melba”; so, as this is surely the voice of an old  friend calling, why should I not commence with one who linked with Adelina Patti as Patti linked with Jenny Lind—a century of song.

Singers? I have met very few. I was almost going to say: “Thank the Lord,” for the ladies who imagine that they presented the Almighty with the vocal chords which have earned them fame and also are sure they explained to the Deity exactly where they wished them placed, are, as a rule, a pest, possessed of nothing but airs and anything but graces. However, one superlative artist I did know very well, over a period of some five and thirty years. This was Melba! and mighty singer though she was, never in private life was she other than a very direct and down-to-earth lady. She was possessed of a dominant personality, one which I fancy inspired admiration and respect, but seldom spontaneous affection, from those with whom she came in contact. Indeed, I think she rather made those about her fearful of her displeasure, for she was intolerant of ordinary people, and was the last person to brook opposition, even over the most trivial matters.

In speaking of her like this I must not be accused of condemning her in private life; on the contrary, considering that she for many years had the world at her feet and was fawned upon, not only by the public, but by kings and princes, it is very wonderful that she should not have become absolutely intolerably; but, though difficult, she was to be forgiven and in a sense applauded, for she was not only crowned by the world “Queen of Song,” but had crowned herself the legitimate Queen over everyone who challenged her supremacy on the operatic stage.

Her acting was poor, but her technique as a singer beyond words marvellous, for even as an old woman, when the Voice had waned with the years, she could hold vast audiences spellbound with the magic of her knowledge of the art in which she had been pre-eminent.

I heard her in Bohème at her farewell performance in Melbourne, [1] a ghost of her great self, but still a giant. Her series of farewells was considered a thing to jest about. But why? She was clever enough to know that with her technique alone she still held all comers at bay, and although Shakespeare himself wrote that farewell was easily said, I beg to differ, for “Farewell!” is, I think, the saddest word in our beautiful language.

Operatic artists are known to be the most jealous people in the world, and Melba was no exception, for I well remember her undisguised annoyance at the advent on her horizon of Tetrazzini. It was at a supper party she gave, while singing in the Isle of Man, that on some one mentioning Tetrazzini's recent triumph in London, not only did she explode verbally, but even went to the length of rising from the table and prancing about, saying, “This is what Tetrazzini will do, no doubt, if she sings on horseback, and this” (making snorting noises) “is what I suppose the poor horse will do which is obliged to carry her.”

For an artist in her zenith—I speak of forty years ago—such a performance seemed to me incredibly petty, and yet, might she not have thought that her citadel was being stormed and suddenly have developed an inferiority complex? If this were so she was to be forgiven, for surely greatness must always be looked upon with a kindly and forgiving eye.

In thinking of the difficult times managers have with the majority of people in opera, I remember once Sir Augustus Harris (known to the London of his day as Druriolanus) saying that the only way he was able to conciliate various stars when travelling together, if he was obliged to place one great singer over the other in the sleeping berths, was to have a placard with “and” placed between them, so that the lady in the lower bunk would feel that she was on perfectly equal terms artistically with her sister who slumbered overhead.

As a business woman, Melba had the brain of a business man and saw life through the spectacles of her Scottish ancestors. Of gentleness she had little, of humour none. Her fun was the obvious, and commanding as she did the applause courtiers are trained to give to Royalty for the most futile of sallies, she was mercifully unaware that had she not been Melba, a yawn would have replaced the ever-ready guffaw.

To me she was always extraordinarily kind and, although I can say I was never easy in her presence, I was fond of her, though frightened of her moods, which found birth in a quick mentality always just ahead of the moment.

I have said there was little gentleness about her, but there I was wrong, for the face which was hard and by no means beautiful, softened beyond measure as she played with her little grand-daughter (now grown into a charming young lady), for whom, I remember, she took delight in watching as the child played with a lamb she had bought for her in Melbourne, and which she had brought back in triumph to her lovely home, called “Coombe Cottage” at Lilydale, some five and twenty miles from that entrancing city.

Her jewels were marvellous and her cabinets were filled with wonders of the goldsmith's art, all of them presentations from the most noble and the most famous of every land she had enthralled with her God-given voice. The one story she loved to tell against herself was that of a gentleman on board a P. & O. liner bound for Australia.

This worthy, quite unaware that the one and only Melba was on board, was splashing about in his bath the first day out at sea, and, hearing some one singing in the next cabin, shouted out: “Oh, for heaven's sake shut up!” His consternation may well be imagined when later in the afternoon it was made known to him that the voice belonged to a lady who would have probably charged him a thousand guineas had he engaged her to sing at his private house, and that only if she could have been persuaded to do so.

Melba was often very pleased with simple things, although accustomed to the best the world could offer, and I remember once she seemed more than delighted with a dedication I wrote to her in a little book called “Hullo, Australians!” We were sitting at a restaurant in Sydney, when she suddenly said, “I hear you are writing a book about my country. Is that so?” When I replied that it was true and that I was dedicating it to her, she became greatly interested, and asked what form the dedication was to take. Frankly, I had not thought of it, but I scribbled on the back of the luncheon menu a line which I think gave her pleasure. It was: “The voice of a nightingale was hushed when Melba sang.”

In his early days Landon (now Sir Landon) Ronald was invariably her accompanist at the piano, and while he always addressed her as “Queen,” she took a delight in teasing him about his nose, which is, as he himself often remarks, an outside size in noses. She would chaff him unmercifully, a thing which this great musician and charming gentleman always took in very good part. It was while at Douglas, Isle of Man, that on my asking Landon to come out with me for the afternoon, he replied: “Well, yes, I will, I have nothing particular to do here, except to look after Melba.” His reply called forth a yell of laughter from the assembled company, all of whom knew the diva and were well aware that to look after her and obey her commands was very nearly a three-man job.

It was Melba, who discovered the genius of that great throat specialist, Sir Milsom Rees, and I think she was never happy unless he was within call, for he understood her delicate and sensitive vocal organs as no other man ever did. Never shall I forget going with her to a throat doctor in a great northern city, for she made the poor man, metaphorically, sink through the floor. She had caught a slight cold and after this good gentleman had examined her carefully, she inquired of him what he proposed to do. “Paint your throat with nitrate of silver,” he replied. “What?” she almost screamed, “paint my beautiful vocal chords with stuff of that kind? You must be mad,” and paying him his fee, she flounced out of the house like a whirlwind.

On her singing nights she whispered all day and, indeed, seldom spoke at all, so careful was she of the gifts she treasured. Why she was never waylaid at night-time on her motor ride from Melbourne to her country house was a thing at which I have often marvelled, for unattended she would often carry with her the thousands and thousands of pounds' worth of jewellery she had worn at the theatre.

For a fellow countryman of hers, Haddon Chambers, she had the greatest admiration as an author, and was very fond of him as a man. She was not in London when this witty man of the world died, and when she inquired of me the details of his death and as to how he had succeeded in his later years, long after I had finished telling her all I could about our mutual friend, she sat silent, looking through the rose-covered pergolas of her lovely garden out into the bluest of blue Australian skies, so far removed from the drab streets of our great metropolis which surrounded an opera house in Covent Garden to which Haddon, in company with many another of her devoted friends, had so often accompanied her.

Not the least of Melba's many great qualities was the staunch way, come good or ill, she stood by those of whom she was fond. Socially, of course, she was big enough to do this, but there are many who would have hesitated to stand by some unfortunate, whom the world refused to pardon.  The great singer was a big-hearted human being, who felt that a sin atoned for should not be made punishable for ever.

Talking of punishment, it was Charles Brookfield; one of the most acid of Victorian wits, who meeting, in the Haymarket, a friend who had just served a sentence of five years' penal servitude, greeted him with great cordiality.

The sinner, taken aback, expecting no doubt to be deliberately cut, said to Brookfield, “Thank you very much, my dear fellow; I thought you would pass me by.”

“On the contrary,” said Brookfield, “I thought you would pass me by. You see you've done your time, I haven't done mine.”

It is sad to think I shall never meet Melba again, and on returning to Australia, as I hope to some day, it will be, I fear, like wandering through a beautiful garden, straining my ears in vain to hear an echo of the lovely voice the angels have welcomed to their choir.

Originally published in Night Lights, Seymour Hicks, Cassell & Co., London: 1938; in the chapter “Famous Ladies Of The Stage”—Madame Melba (pp. 107–113)


[1] Melba’s farewell performance of La Bohème was given at His Majesty's Theatre, Melbourne on 13 October, 1924. Ellaline Terriss and Betty Hicks assisted with selling souvenir programmes in the theatre’s foyer prior to the performance. La Bohème was also broadcast live from the theatre by radio station 3LO as its inaugural broadcast in Melbourne, which prompted a ‘run’ on the sale of radio receivers prior to the event, and was consequently heard by an estimated listening audience of 150,000.

11 Broadway JonesSeymour Hicks and Ellaline Terriss in the 1914 London production of Broadway JonesThe Hickses had befriended British journalist and novelist Beverley Nichols on the voyage out from Britain aboard the Orient liner Ormuz. Nichols had come to Australia as Private Secretary to Melba during her tour and also as ‘ghost-writer’ of her autobiography Melodies and Memories first published in 1925.

Although Ellaline Terriss had originally accompanied her husband and daughter on the Australasian tour to convalesce from a recent illness, she stepped into the breach at some 30 hours’ notice when Hicks’s leading lady Barbara Hoffe was suddenly stricken with typhoid fever (apparently contracted during the Ormuz’s stopover in Ceylon), a day prior to the opening night of The Man in Dress Clothes. Despite not having played the role before, Terriss learnt her lines and stage ‘blocking’ under her husband's direction and acted the female lead with such success that she earned an ovation from the first night audience and was acclaimed in the subsequent Melbourne Press reviews. At the request of the management, Terriss retained her role in The Man in Dress Clothes right through the tour and played opposite her husband in Sleeping Partners and Broadway Jones as well. Nineteen year old Betty Hicks made her stage début under the name of ‘Elizabeth Seymour’ playing small parts in The Man in Dress Clothes and Scrooge (which preceded Sleeping Partners as a curtain raiser at the Palace Theatre from 5 April), and played a supporting role in Old Bill, MP staged during the Hicks' return season at the Palace from 20 September 1924.

Ellaline Terriss's memories of Melba during their Australian tour were included in her autobiography Just A Little Bit Of String published in 1955.

Of all the people who did so much to make us welcome and at home, nobody did more than that uncrowned Queen of Australia, Dame Nellie Melba. Her kindness was as unceasing as it was delightful. From the moment we set foot on shore she told us that her home was our home, and her door would be always open to us. She was present at our opening night. Nothing was too much trouble for her where we were concerned, and this magnificent singer went out of her way to take care of Betty and me, as if we had been placed in her special charge. She had a lovely home, twenty-five miles or so outside Melbourne. She called it a Cottage—but it was like an Arabian Nights Palace set in the bush. It was a treasure house of marvellous things which she had collected during her career, and all around it were dream gardens. She insisted that I called her Nellie—she would not allow the more formal Dame Nellie—so Nellie she became to me. She was giving her Farewell Season in Opera, so far as Australia was concerned, whilst we were there and we were privileged to hear her. Even then one could realise the perfection of voice that had been hers, for she had matchless technique. It was also our very great privilege to be present at her last performance. That was something which I shall never forget. It seemed as though the audience would never let her go, and it was an occasion to live in the memory as long as life lasts. She did not surround herself with just ordinary opera singers – she knew better than that. She had, as support, the best that Italy could send.

Unlike most opera singers, she cared very much about the setting of the scenes in which she was to sing. Everything must be quite correct. She would go into the smallest detail and see that each was absolutely right. I remember watching her once at rehearsal. She was dissatisfied with the way in which a tree had been ‘set’. With deference, the stage director told her that the tree was in its usual place. That meant nothing to her. It was not set her way. So she just took hold of the tree—it  was a large one—and carried it without effort from the side of the stage to dead centre. That was the way she wanted it and that was the way she had it too. She saw to that by doing it herself. It was the same with dresses and properties, just 'anything' would not do, and Opera was not very particular about such details in those days. But when Nellie Melba was to sing—well, Nellie Melba saw it was done her way—which meant with perfection.

It was with Melba that we met a young man who was to become a lifelong friend ... That is Beverley Nichols, who was then writing Dame Nellie's Life Story. He was already showing that brilliance which everybody now recognises. We became friends at once, and we all used to play Mah Jongg and laugh a good deal, which is perhaps better than any game. Once, in Dame Nellie's Sydney flat, Toti dal Monte and Borgioli were there, too, and a game of Mah Jongg was in progress, with considerable hilarity. Suddenly a young lady was announced who was an understudy in La Bohème and whom Melba had asked to call, so that she could give her a lesson. She had forgotten. But this was serious, this was Opera, this was music and above all this was singing. So the game was at once abandoned and we all sat very quietly whilst Melba herself gave that girl a lesson in the big song they had to tackle—for the girl had to sing the part that night. Melba played the piano herself—and I have to admit she played it badly—but what she taught the girl in the way of singing, breathing, voice production, tone and above all technique was simply marvellous. Where Melba was concerned, music came first. I have never forgotten that lesson.

She was absolutely devoted to her little grand-daughter, the child of her son George Armstrong and his charming wife, Evie. The little girl could do what she liked with her. Melba might have made great impresarii and notabilities quail and tremble, but Pamela ruled her. Pamela had also a pet lamb which she adored; decorated with little bells and blue bows it was allowed the complete run of the house.

Before bidding good-bye to Melba, I must recall how she ‘ticked off’ Seymour about his voice. It was when we were playing in The Man in Dress Clothes. He was complaining that he always had trouble with his throat. “Of course you have trouble with your voice,” said Melba. “You ought to do vocal exercises, but you don't. Your voice is invaluable to you, isn't it? Very well, then! Singers do vocal exercises and what is good enough for them is good enough for actors.” She gave him a lesson right away and Seymour had to promise to obey her instructions. It took it out of him a bit, but he swore he would always do as she commanded. Needless to say he never did those exercises again in his life. I don't quite know what Nellie expected, for she told him he must do them all the time. Perhaps she thought that when the curtain rose on The Man in Dress Clothes and showed him waking up in bed, he ought to commence with “Ah, ah, ah” up the scale and down again. I can't imagine Seymour thinking of such a thing—or anything but his part at such a time.

Originally published in Just A Little Bit Of String by Ellaline Terriss, Hutchinson, London, 1955—A Chapter of Happy Accidents, pp. 232–239.

  • Biographical notes by Robert Morrison



Recordings made by HMV (the Gramophone Company) during Nellie Melba’s farewell performance at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden on 8 June 1926

  1. ‘Donde lieta uscì’ (Mimi’s farewell), Act 3, La Bohème by Puccini—sung by Nellie Melba [Matrix. CR 412; cat. no. HMV DB 943]
  2. Dame Nellie Melba’s farewell speech [Matrix. CR 421; cat. no. HMV DB 943]


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