Opera Meets Film: An Australian Singer Performed by a ‘Princess’ in Harry Kurnitz’s ‘Melba’

By John Vandevert

A film about an opera singer falling in-love, only to fall out of love and pursue her career, is perfect for the screen. 

Produced in 1953 by American playwright and producer Harry Kurnitz, the embellished biopic “Melba is the story of the famed figure of operatic history Nellie Melba who was personified by an equally great actress-singer, Patrice Munsel. Although a sensationalized retelling of the life of Nellie Melba, the film was a unique opportunity for audiences to learn about this only twenty-years gone singer of the opera’s “Golden” past. 

Interesting is the film’s choice of an on-screen singer, as the producers had hoped to get American dramatic soprano Marjorie Lawrence (1907-1979) to sing but she was unable and so they went to others. However, Lawrence herself was the subject of a film, “Interrupted Melody.” Problems only continued when Munsel got the script, only to find out that the story was essentially a sappy love story with opera thrown in. Even Munsel herself had her reservations.

Nevertheless, let’s find out who these two star-studded figures were and take a look at the music involved to see just what the film is really about. With one from America and the other from Australia, the film is truly global.

Who Is Nellie Melba?

“Melba” centers around the extraordinary life of Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931), one of the most famous singers in Australian operatic history. She was one of the main figures of Australian origin to establish an international name as a classical musician. 

Her career spanned a rather select group of roles and really only ventured into the territory of French and Italian opera, bypassing German rather prominently. Her recording, having begun in 1895 when the technology was only just invented, and her teaching career helped to cement her name in history for generations to come. A student of the notable pedagogue German mezzo-soprano Mathilde Marchesi, creator of the widely celebrated “Marchesi Method,” Melba’s later personal methodology focused on Marchesi’s principles. In short, “In order to sing well, it is necessary to sing easily.” But Melba’s performance career is nothing short of illustrious. Having begun her studies with a pupil of the eminent Spanish baritone-pedagogue Manuel Garcia, she went from London to Paris and quickly found success there.

She made expedited progress with Marchesi and her debut in October of 1887 at Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in the role of Gilda in Rigoletto, followed quickly by Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. At this point, she’d made a name for herself as a phenomenal technician and studious dramaturg. In 1888, she was set to make her Covent Garden debut as Lucia in Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor.” However, the cool reception and less-than-noble role in Verdi’s “Un ballo in maschera” turned her off from ever pursuing a career in England again. Instead, she turned towards Paris and in 1889 her performance of Ophélie in Ambroise Thomas’ “Hamlet” wowed critics and audiences alike. She was convinced to come back to England by Gwladys Robinson and soon made an appearance in Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette,” although soon after leaving for Paris, yet again.

During the 1890s, Melba crossed paths with many notable dignitaries and palatial figures like Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and Prince Phillip of Orleans, the latter forming a tumultuous relationship with the diva seeing as she was technically married to Charles Armstrong. Later, she would have to prove herself after a cool reception of her Nedda at Covent Garden and impenetrable classism at the Metropolitan Opera frustrated her easy ascent. But, she conquered and added roles to her name like Marguerite in “Faust,” Hélène in “Hélène,” and Esmeralda in “Esmeralda.”

She did partake in Wagnerian repertoire like Elsa in “Lohengrin,” but both critics and colleagues alike found her acting and vocal identity unsuited for such a world. It was during the 20th century that Melba’s notability really took off. She was an early advocate of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” considered by many at the time as a low-brow and very undignified operatic story about the poor. She performed frequently at Royal Albert Hall in London and became quite well-known for her concert tours in Australia for the public. 

During WWI, she took up the task of fundraising and was named a “Dame Commander” for efforts. The remainder of her life was spent doing a stream of farewell concerts, with the phrase, “More farewells than Dame Nellie Melba” attributed to such a fact. Her death shook the world and her memory lives on in opera history.      

But Who Is “Princess Pat?”

Having introduced the film’s inspiration, it’s vital we now turn to the film’s central starlight. Namely, American soprano Patrice Munsel (1925-2016), the youngest singer on record to have sung with the Metropolitan Opera, although only at its old location at 1411 Broadway. Munsel’s journey towards becoming “Princess Pat” was one that took her from her home in Spokane, Washington to New York. It launched her into a 15 year career featuring 225 appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House. 

At the age of 15, accompanied by her mother, they left for New York so Munsel could train with coach Giacomo Spadoni. He was a teacher to seminal figures like Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza. He is best known for his work as the principal conductor of the old Met. After only three years of training, Munsel sang with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra for the first time, singing in the Metropolitan National Council Auditions pre-opera concert. For this, she won critical praise and the following year she’d formally begin her journey with the theater. Singing in the role of Philine in Ambroise Thomas’ “Mignon,” although critics were divided she won popular praise and her career would only grow from there. She’s principally known as an opera singer in America, with roles such as Mimi in “La Bohème” and Adele in “La Traviata” some of her most critically acclaimed roles during her career. 

Another exceptional part of Munsel’s career which helped her, in some regards, to stand apart from her contemporaries was her participation in popular music forms and television broadcasting at the time. For a time, she was the host of the show, “The Patrice Munsel Show,” billed as a cross-over between popular music and opera. Despite its short run-time, lasting only one year (1956-57), her initiative echoed more successful attempts at getting the public to appreciate and understand classical music.

Leonard Bernstein’s “Young People’s Concerts,” a hit with audiences and running for 13 seasons, featured countless excerpts and discussions about how to listen and comprehend aspects of classical music and, at one point, popular music’s relationship to classical music. Munsel’s other appearances include “The Bell Telephone Hour,” a program sponsored by the Bell Telephone company to bring popular and classical artists to American airwaves, and various shows during the 1950s. She also went onto well-known shows like “The Tonight Show” to sing and showcase her talent. 

Her career at the Metropolitan Opera came to a conclusion in 1958 in the title role of Jacques Offenbach’s opera, “La Périchole.” It is a less recognized but continually performed work and just performed by the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. She continued to perform until 2008, when she made her performance retirement. In 2005, she co-authored a memoir about her life entitled “The Diva & I.” Her prominence came from her adaptability and consummate talent. Despite having had a very short career, her name is immortalized in opera history.

A Look At The Soundtrack

The film, although centered around a high-profile Australian soprano, features a breadth of music which harkens back to the days of J. S. Bach to Scottish minstrelsy and Russian art songs to classical names like Mozart, Rossini, Puccini, and Gounod to name just a few. Let’s take a look at the film’s musical selections and see what there is to discover, both well-known and less familiar. 

Firstly, it should be said that some thought the film to be a loftier version of what is called a “number opera,” or Opera a numeri. This means an opera whose musical selections can easily be taken out of context and sung. However, not just arias but also instrumental movements and what are called “intermezzi.” If you’ve ever been to an aria concert, you’ll understand the concept. Operas like “Le Nozze di Figaro,” and almost all of Mozart’s opera to be exact, could be considered this characteristic. Others like Igor Stravinsky used the same concept in his famed opera, “The Rake’s Progress,” with the aria “No word from Tom” a popular selection for soprano and orchestra. 

This type of easily breakable opera format was reviled by Wagner, whose through composed and predominantly recit-like writing frustrated easy cutting-up of his operas and isolating arias from their surrounding music. Having said this, aria-movements like the “Liebestod” from “Tristan und Isolde” is one popular number type of snippet routinely done throughout the world. Another thing to note is that Wagner’s rejection of the number opera grew towards the end of the 19th century. By the beginning of the verismo period (i.e., late-19th to mid-1920s) such a fragmented style of opera wasn’t really in style anymore. This is most clear in Puccini’s “La Boheme.” The arias ‘Che gelida manina’ and ‘Sì, mi chiamano Mimì’ seemingly run together, although they’ve been successfully performed independently of each other. 

Returning to the film, it uses an impressive amount of operas ranging across an equally impressive amount of composers. Music from lesser-known operas like Giacomo Meyerbeer’s “Robert Le Diable,” just performed by the Opéra National de Bordeaux in 2021, sit consonant with exceedingly well-known operas like Gaetano Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Giacomo Puccini’s “Tosca” and “La Bohème.” Because Nellie Melba was a rather eminent coloratura soprano and a technical master, the music reflects this. Quintessential coloratura repertoire like “Una Voce Poco Fa” from Rossini’s “Il barbiere di Siviligia” and highly dramatic and artistically complex arias like “Vissi d’arte” from Puccini’s arguably most famous “Tosca” reflect just how sensational actress-singer Munsel had to be in order to pull off such a large serving.

A rather ambitious collection of advanced operatic musicality, the film is nothing short than a marathon. Moments like the Act three quartet “O pur bonheur” from Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette” and the Act one toasting scene, “Brindisi,” from Verdi’s beloved “La Traviata” are balanced out with art song repertoire like Felix Mendelssohn’s “On Wings of Song and even instrumental waltzes like Mischa Spoliansky’s “Dreamtime,” now referred to as “The Melba Waltz.” The opera also uses a personal favorite of mine, Gounod’s 1857 barcarolle “Serenade.”

All together, one after the other, I get the impression of a slowly unfolding narrative which talks about the gradual development of a figure from lofty beginnings to international prestige and domestic immortality. While Melba’s personal story is one of great triumph, such is also reflected in the music used in the film. A mad scene to juvenile gitty to nihilistic prayers to excitement of love’s prospects to a sincere thank you to music itself. This film truly has everything. All there is left to do now is to just sit back and enjoy.


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