‘More farewells than Dame Nellie Melba’ is a familiar (somewhat sarcastic) accusation among Australians. And it’s true that Dame Nellie had many of them. She would give sold-out farewell concerts whenever she left Britain to go on tour abroad, and, when she came to the final performance in any given city (be it Birmingham, Boston or Ballarat), there would be a farewell, sometimes several. They came thick and fast, especially during the latter years of her long career.
But one farewell outweighed all the others combined. It happened on the evening of 8 June 1926: Melba’s last performance at the place she described as her ‘artistic home’ – the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. After a rather sticky start on 24 May 1888 in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, by 1926 Nellie had been the reigning queen of that great house for nearly forty years ‒ a length of time virtually unprecedented in operatic history. It was the diva herself who decided on the program for that gala evening. There were to be three operas featured – each one having a central role in which Melba was famous: Juliette in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello and Mimì in Puccini’s La bohème. She had studied personally with all three composers.
While Melba’s farewell to Covent Garden was a great event in itself – the queue for tickets snaked around the building, the auditorium packed with the great and the good of that time, including King George V and Queen Mary and the exiled king and queen of Portugal ‒ it is also memorable for a quite different reason. Parts of the event were recorded by The Gramophone Company. In the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century, performances were captured mechanically in recording studios, the artists singing directly into a horn, the sound registered through a vibrating stylus cutting a groove into wax master discs. Recordings of live performances in public venues with an audience were virtually impossible.
However, Western Electric in the USA succeeded in developing electrical recording, the most important ingredient of which was the microphone. It was this new technology that The Gramophone Company licensed in Britain, starting in 1925, and it was quickly perceived that it would be possible now to make live recordings of important events as they happened. Accordingly, Covent Garden was used as a ‘guinea pig’, the first live performance to be captured there by new-fangled microphones being chunks of Boito’s Mefistofele sung by the great Russian bass, Feodor Chaliapin, on 31 May 1926. A week later, the company followed up with test recordings of the house’s Bohème production with Margaret Sheridan as Mimì. These were clearly adjudged to be successful as, four days later, on 8 June, eleven ‘takes’ were made at Melba’s farewell, all of which survive. It was often assumed that the recording equipment (with its accompanying engineers) was housed somewhere in the bowels of the opera house at Covent Garden, but in reality it was several hundred metres away – at Gloucester House in Leicester Square – the electrical signal passing down telephone wires between the two locations. Having no visual contact with the stage, the engineers had to make educated guesses as to when to turn on and turn off the recording machine. Nevertheless, the results are extraordinary. Released from the stultifying atmosphere of the studio, Melba was on top form, both vocally and dramatically. A revelation.
Six months after the pioneering live recordings at Covent Garden, Melba was enticed for a last time into the recording studio by The Gramophone Company. With her young colleague John Brownlee, she recorded two duets – one from Verdi’s La traviata, the other by Herman Bemberg – and two solos: ‘Clair de lune’ by Joseph Szulc and the traditional African-American spiritual, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot’. Fittingly, it is this last that ends this collection of the great diva’s recordings.