Friday, April 04, 2008


One of the very best lines of musical criticism is something that Ernest Newman said about Nellie Melba: Her voice was uninteresting perfect and perfectly uninteresting.
That line, and that particular criticism, is totally overlooked in the delightful biography of the Australian super-soprano written by Joseph Wechsberg, Red Plush and Black Velvet (1961). Actually, it’s not so much a formal biography as a New Yorker profile, which may explain its charm.
An even more surprising omission is any mention of Beverly Nichols’s novel, Evensong, about a singer, Melba, who foolishly refuses to retire even when her voice has deserted her—and the subsequent motion picture that featured the incomparable Conchita Supervia as the Melba character’s rival. (Nichols had been Melba’s secretary.)
In fact, the book bends over backwards to say nice things about Melba—how generous she was, for example—when almost everyone else had nasty things to say about her. (John McCormack was about to take a bow with her in Covent Garden when Melba pushed him aside, saying that she took bows alone. Melba also allegedly deliberately hindered the careers of rivals, such as Farrar, Kurz, and Eames.)
Some interesting things from the book:
“Prima donnas had very bad habits in those days.” After singing the role of Desdemona, Melba—when the audience called for an encore—would have the stagehands wheel out a piano, and (still wearing the nightgown Desdemona was strangled in) play “Home, Sweet Home,” accompanying herself.
Famous singers tended to have rivals. Catalani had Pasta; Pasta had Grisi; Grisi had Tietjens, who had Sontag, who had Malibran, who abdicated to Jenny Lind, who preceded Patti, followed by Melba—who had Tetrazinni, Eames, and others. Eames had Garden, who had Farrar. More recently, Galli-Curci had Toti dal Monte, Jeritza had Lotte Lehman, and Callas had Tebaldi.
Talk about rude! At a concert in Paris, Melba said in a loud voice, “What a dreadful concert this would have been if I hadn’t come!” Commented Mary Garden, “I love Melba’s rudeness. It amuses me.”
She never lost her Australian accent. So, should she be allowed to sing in Lakme, in French? Said the composer, Delibes, “Qu’elle chante Lakme en francais, en italien, en allemand, en anglais, ou en chinois, cela m’est egal, mais qu‘elle la chante.” (Gounod, Puccini, Massenet, Verdi, and other composers were also admirers.)
She was no great actress. To express mild emotion, someone said, she would raise one arm; to express extreme passion, two arms.
Caruso once recorded the coat aria from Boheme, for a bass, but had the master record destroyed, saying “I don’t want to spoil the bass business.” He allegedly sang the bass role on stage once when the bass lost his voice; Caruso told him, “Stand still and move your lips.”
She was friends with Sarah Bernhardt and Oscar Wilde—and when Wilde was down and out in Paris and approached her on the street for a handout, she gave him whatever money she had with her.
Lillian Nordica’s husband died while attempting to cross the Channel in a balloon. She herself once said that the Boston Symphony played “like the Kalamazoo band.”
Asked by a singer for advice about singing in Australia, Melba said, “Just sing ‘em muck.” Maybe that explains Newman’s comment.
“Dumb applause”: clapping silently, for the benefit of onlookers. Something prima donnas allegedly did when other prima donnas sang.
Peach melba has endured but not Poires Mary Garden and Coupe Emma Calve.
Caruso had a sense of humor. In one Boheme, when the dying Mimi staggers onstage and Rodolfo’s friends move a bed over toward her, under the bed appeared a chamberpot—placed there by Caruso. The audience at Covent Garden gasped.
Melba was extremely well compensated. She made even more than Caruso. That helps explain why yesterday’s favorite singers are still impressive: Even back then, anyone with a fine voice was sure to be discovered.


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