Jenolan Caves

The Dame Nellie Melba Mystery - Did She or Didn't She?

May 28, 2020
In musical circles, the Cathedral Chamber of Jenolan’s Lucas Cave is renowned for perfect acoustics and has been used for all sorts of concerts and performances over the years. Dame Joan Sutherland sang in the chamber during an unofficial visit to the caves.  And, aside from Dame Joan, it has long been rumoured that one of the greatest opera divas that the world has ever known also sang at Jenolan Caves.  Was it ever more than a rumour?
In 1861, Helen Porter Mitchell was born in Melbourne. In 1884, she made her singing début at a Liedertafel concert at the Melbourne Town Hall. Melbourne’s Australasian newspaper reported, 'She sings like one out of ten thousand'. 
Changing her name to Nellie Melba (after her home town, Melbourne) she débuted as an opera singer at the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels, in 1887. An immediate hit, she launched a staggering career of dazzling operatic triumphs, all over the world.  
An international superstar, in 1902 she returned to Australia, for a concert tour. From the concerts in Sydney and Melbourne alone, she netted £21,000, equal to more than $2.5million in today’s money. No wonder her face features on Australia’s hundred-dollar note! The takings of one Sydney concert set a world record. 
Melba sang with seeming effortlessness, producing a voice which Sarah Bernhardt described as 'pure crystal', and which the soprano Mary Garden admired for the way it “left the stage and seemed to hover in the auditorium like a beam of light”. Her range was a perfectly blended three octaves. Her ‘trill’ was so flawless that when scientifically measured, it produced twenty feet of undulations between perfectly parallel lines. 
From 1904, Melba began recording. She made over one hundred recordings and helped to establish the gramophone. Although the recordings do not do her justice, you can listen to an example, Chant Venitien, composed by her piano accompanist, Herman Bemberg.
In 1909, she obtained the very latest in large, luxury automobiles - a new 4-cylinder car from Louis Renault. The Roi des Belges body was fitted by royal coach builders Alford and Alder, in the style of the latest car of another admirer, the Price of Wales. Her initials were inscribed in gold on the doors, seats upholstered with buttoned stitch-less folded diamond leather, and finished in hand crafted brush paintwork.  
Bringing her prized Renault to Australia in 1909, she embarked on a 'sentimental tour', covering 16,093 km, and appearing in many remote towns. Melba’s entourage consisted of flautist and manager, John Lemmone, her maid, Miss Fastnidge, a valet and two baby grand pianos.
In 1912, Melba, Lemmone, Miss Fastnidge and Melba’s Italian chauffeur drove the Renault from Sydney, to a party at Jenolan Caves. The party was probably at the posh new Caves house.  We know she attended this party at Jenolan, because many years later, a car collector discovered the once-prized car hidden at Liddleton Station, on the Caves Road, at Hartley, and the story emerged. Evidently the Jenolan party was so good, that when Melba wanted to leave, the intoxicated chauffeur could not manage to start the Renault. So Melba drove the car to her families’ nearby property, where it sat protected under sheepskins, until it’s discovery in 1959.. 

Since Melba had relatives close to Jenolan, it’s possible that she had been to the Caves before, unofficially.  But unfortunately, we do not know if she sang, either in the hotel or in the caves.  It is a mystery that we wish we could solve.

Melba was such a huge superstar that Auguste Escoffier, the legendary cook at London’s Savoy Hotel, created several dishes for her – 'Melba Toast', 'Melba Sauce' (a sweet purée of raspberries and redcurrant), and 'Melba Garniture' (chicken, truffles and mushrooms stuffed into tomatoes with velouté).   In 1892, Melba was performing in Wagner's opera, Lohengrin, at Covent Garden. The Duke of Orléans, with whom Melba was rumoured to be having an affair, gave a dinner party to celebrate her triumph. For the occasion, Escoffier created a new dessert, and to display it, he used an ice sculpture of a swan, which is featured in the opera. The swan carried peaches, which rested on a bed of vanilla ice cream, and which were topped with spun sugar.  He called his creation 'Peche Melba'. It became a classic dessert.
If you would like to know how to make Peach Melba, our clever Head Chef, Mark Livingstone, will soon post a video to show you how.  Check our YouTube channel, for his ‘Make it with Mark’ cooking video series.  
And if you have any verifiable information regarding Dame Nellie Melba at Jenolan Caves, we would be extremely happy to hear from you. It would be wonderful to solve the mystery.
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4655 Jenolan Caves Road, Jenolan Caves, Blue Mountains NSW. Ph: 1300 76 33 11 or +61 2 6359 3911

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