REVIEW

This new biography portrays Dame Nellie Melba as a complex diva in need of real love

Legendary Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. Picture: Getty Images

Legendary Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba. Picture: Getty Images

This is not the biography Dame Nellie Melba would have wanted you to read. Heavy on her personal life and on her phenomenal success as a diva in Europe, America, Australia and Britain, it is, perhaps, a bit too personal.

Helen Mitchell, as she was born, was unlucky with the men in her life. Her father, the wealthy Melbourne Presbyterian was a shocker. Tight with his money, domineering, single-minded about woman's role in society, and utterly uninterested in his daughter's extraordinary career, he still caused her to crave his love and approbation.

Foolishly marrying too young, swept off her feet by lust, beauty and horsemanship, Helen soon regretted her intemperate marriage to Charlie Armstrong. He was an abuser, physically knocking her about grievously. He was also a liar, a sponger and a main-chancer. He gave her a son, whom he kept from her for a decade from George's ninth birthday.

So enters Phillipe, Duc d'Orleans, heir to the French throne, handsome in the same style as Charlie, attentive and seductive. Melba, as she now is, and Phillipe flit across Europe, following her extraordinarily demanding artistic life, believing in their privacy, as they let the world into their romance.

It will all end in tears, of course, as royalty demands that Phillipe wake up to his responsibilities and his increasingly remote, if not to say farcical, claims on the French throne. Phillipe constructs the world's greatest collection of stuffed animals and Melba creates a career the like of which the world had never seen before.

Readers will celebrate her triumphs at Covent Garden, Palais Garnier, La Scala and the Metropolitan in New York. They will goggle at the wealth, the luxury, the adulation and the chicanery. But there are tender moments - the skill, love and devotion of her Parisian music teacher, Madame Marchesi, the guidance of her London patron, Gladys de Grey, and the eventual reconciliation with her son, George.

Yet Nellie remains a hard nut to crack for Robert Wainwright. He finds little tenderness in her and not much joy. Readers may wonder if such awful, deprived, or, better, depraved men, as her father and husband robbed her of the humanity that might have softened her.

This is a tough book to read. Well-written, well-paced, invariably light and interesting, it tells a tale of a woman who deserved much more. Rupert Bunny's portrait on the front cover warns the reader. It is a hard face, private, hurt and sceptical. While the world threw itself at her feet, Helen Mitchell wanted and deserved more.

This story A complex diva who wanted and deserved real love first appeared on The Canberra Times.