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Dame Nellie Melba
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Dame Nellie Melba
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Dame Nellie Melba
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Historical Profile
2 October 2014

Dame Nellie Melba

From unruly student to operating superstar.

Written by Dennis YC Liu

Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.

Flip open any Australian history book and the name Dame Nellie Melba won’t be far from your fingertips. Renowned as a legendary opera singer, she graces the $100 note and has had everything from concert halls to suburbs to desserts like the Peach Melba named after her.

With all this memorabilia around, Nellie’s life can take on a mythical quality. It’s easy to forget that she was also just a person finding her way through life’s twists and tumbles.

In her early years, Nellie’s parents sent her off to boarding school in the hope that it might tame her somewhat. Precocious and spirited, Nellie battled with this austere environment on a daily basis (compulsory cold showers at 6am!) and even confessed later that she was probably seen as the worst student at her college. She once said it seemed “impossible to teach me anything except music“.

This disenchantment with school is familiar to a lot of us. And it ties into what Sir Ken Robinson says in his timeless TED talk, “How school kills creativity“—that the traditional school system paints a too-narrow picture of what intelligence can be and squanders rather than fosters talent. He argues that intelligence is so much more than academic ability. It is in fact diverse (there are many different kinds), dynamic (always changing and growing throughout our entire lives) and distinct (like a fingerprint).

This couldn’t be more true for Melba. Although she was disinterested in the staple subjects of maths and English, she showed all the signs of being an incredibly passionate student. It’s just that she had to subvert the school system to be one! Nellie would regularly forego eating meals and spend her lunch breaks practising the organ. Music was her gateway to learning and through opera, Nellie developed intelligences that were unique to her: a meticulous attention to detail, a sensitivity to the inner lives of characters and a lifelong love of languages.

Robinson also challenges the perception that creativity is an innate quality you either have or don’t have. Instead, he writes in The Element, it is the application of imagination in our daily lives, which in turn affects how we live and what we do.

For Nellie, growing up in a musical family was just the beginning; in fact, her ambitions to pursue a singing career were met with considerable resistance. Her determination and rebelliousness were critical to her success—the very things an education might have drilled out of her.

Nellie was just a few years out of high school when her mother and younger brother passed away within months of each other and at the age of 20 she found herself isolated as a newlywed on a sugar plantation in Queensland.

With nothing but an iron roof, incessant rain and a mildewed piano to keep her company, Nellie pulled tight on the thread of her imagination and made a drastic decision: With her two-month old son George in tow, she packed her bags and headed back to Melbourne to resume singing lessons. It would take another six years of comprehensive training, numerous fundraising concerts and a relocation to Europe, but Nellie persevered and made her official début at the age of 26. The rest, of course, is history as Nellie went on to become one of the iconic sopranos of her generation.

Whether we live at the turn of the 19th century or in the early 21st, the question still remains: How do we become engaged and lead lives of passion and purpose? In an age of instant results, it can be tempting to approach this question with the finality of a student completing an entrance exam. Nellie’s journey serves as a gentle reminder that in the face of life’s challenges, it can take time (and a few handfuls of grit) for our notions to grow into callings.

Dennis YC Liu

Dennis YC Liu is a filmmaker and journalist based in Melbourne, Australia.

Photograph: National Portrait Gallery

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