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The Dictionary of Australasian Biography/Melba, Madame (Helen Porter Armstrong)

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Melba, Madame (Helen Porter Armstrong), the Australian prima donna, is the daughter of David Mitchell (who emigrated to Victoria from Forfarshire, and who has been a builder in a large way of business in Melbourne, besides owning a good deal of pastoral property). Her mother was Isabel A. Dow, the daughter of J. F. Dow, to whom her father was married in 1857. She was born in Melbourne (hence her stage name), and was married in 1882 to Charles Nisbett Frederick Armstrong, sixth son of Sir Archibald Armstrong, first baronet, of Gallen Priory, King's County, Ireland, who had settled in Queensland. Mrs. Armstrong began to learn music at three years of age, and played and sang in public in Melbourne when only six. Her parents were, however, averse to her becoming a professional vocalist, and it was not until her marriage with Captain Armstrong that she was able to give free scope to what was from an early age her decided bent. In 1886 she came with her husband and parents to London, and made one or two essays at concert-singing in public with no very marked success. She was not, however, discouraged, and commenced a course of training under the well-known Parisian teacher Madame Marchési, who considered her voice so good that she undertook that Mrs. Armstrong should be ready for the stage in eighteen months. This promise was more than fulfilled for exactly twelve months after her first lesson Madame Melba appeared as "Gilda" at the Brussels Opera. Later on she was engaged for the Grand Opera, Paris, where she appeared with M. Lassalle, the famous baritone, in Hamlet. Her Ophelia was warmly praised by the press, and a brilliant career was predicted for her. Whilst studying with Madame Marchési she learnt the leading rôles of ten operas in ten months, said by her teacher to be an almost unheard-of achievement. Operatic deportment was studied by Madame Melba under M. Plaque. Her fame had by this time spread to England, and she was engaged in 1888 by Sir Augustus Harris to appear at Covent Garden in the opera of Lucia di Lammermoor. The performance was cautiously praised by the critics, who were more enthusiastic when she sang with M. Jean de Reszké in Gounod's Romeo et Juliette. Amongst the rôles which she played during this and succeeding seasons at Covent Garden were Lucia, Lakné, Elsa, Marguerite, and Esmeralda. Madame Melba had the advantage of being personally instructed by M. Gounod in the interpretation of his music, especially in the rôles of Juliette and Marguerite. In Jan. 1891 she sang at St. Petersburg, with the brothers De Reszké, by special command of the Czar of Russia, and played a successful round of parts in the principal European capitals. In 1892 she again appeared at Covent Garden, and she has been engaged with the brothers De Reszké for a grand tour of the United States in the "Exhibition year" (1893). It has for some time past been Madame Melba's intention to revisit Australia, in order to give her compatriots an opportunity of forming a judgment on her natural powers as a public singer, but up to date she has found it impossible to secure leisure for so prolonged a tour.