Diva at Downton Abbey

Nellie Melba(Photo: Wikipedia)
Nellie Melba(Photo: Wikipedia)

Two weeks ago Downton Abbey’s fourth season continued with a visit from Dame Nelle Melba.

Since Melba was considered “trade,” Carson insisted that such as she had no place in the dining room with the likes of Lord and Lady Grantham, after whose dinner party the diva would sing for assembled guests and staff.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, still lovely at 70 was cast as her antipodal predecessor. Kiri’s a Kiwi-say that three times fast-from New Zealand.

Melba came from, wait for it-Melbourne Australia

The landed gentry and the male servants grumbled about having to endure the singer. Mrs Hughes, God bless her was thrilled and Lady Grantham to her great credit was appalled that Dame Nellie was excluded from the lordly board. Dinner on a tray be damned. Melba sat next to Lord G himself, who was surprised at the lady’s knowledge of fine wines.

As if. Dame Nellie Melba  (1861-1931) born Helen Porter Mitchell could have bought and sold Lord Grantham and any other lord or lady within 100 miles. She may have been a tomboy from Australia, but her exquisite voice made her the toast of the world.

The Tsar of Russia gave her diamonds. Her long time lover, Phillipe d’Orleans was pretender to the throne of France. Melba had long divorced her husband, Charles Armstrong-who went by the name “Kangaroo Charlie.”

Melba was 60 in 1922, in no way as ravishing as Kiri who is 10 years older. By 1922, Melba, Dame Commander of the British Empire, was a portly harridan with jowls to go with the diamonds. The ravishing voice-most of it-remained. Her gifts and her fame were her entrée to the crowned heads of Europe. “There are many kings,” said the lady, “But there’s only one Melba.”

Kiri was given a few insipid lines and some non-daunting music to sing. There was none of Melba’s hauteur, which combined with a very earthy sense of humor. You gotta love a diva who, after a concert where did not sing, he came out to thank the audience for applauding so lustily when she herself was not appearing.  

This was a lady who combined talent with a great business sense. At her farewell performance she gave a weepy thank you speech to the king and queen and what was left in 1926 of those crowned heads. When the curtain came down the old lady hissed to the stage hands “Put up those bloody g.d. curtains” and out again she sailed to applause.

Take THAT, Mr. Carson!

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