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Research Forum: Flora Willson (Kings College London)
Nellie Melba’s Audible Past: The Cultural Politics of Bel Canto in the 1890s
By the late nineteenth century, opera had become fundamentally international: transport and communications networks enabled performers and works to circulate more widely than ever before. Within this self-consciously “modernised” operatic culture, the Italian bel canto repertoire occupied a problematic position. A handful of works by Rossini, Donizetti, and Verdi continued to be performed; but they were frequently decried as old-fashioned, the vocal technique they demanded seen as obsolete.
However, the arrival in Europe of Australian soprano Nellie Melba marked a crucial shift. In the early 1890s Melba became not just an operatic star in London and Paris but a mass-media celebrity – one closely associated with bel canto roles (Lucia, Gilda, and Violetta in particular). What’s more, as the singer’s own global trajectory continued with her 1893 debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Melba-fever led to a repopularisation of bel canto even among New York’s famously Wagner-loving audiences.
In this paper I focus on Melba’s career and reception to examine the meanings and complex cultural politics of bel canto at the end of the nineteenth century. I begin by locating both Melba and bel canto within the context of the distinctly international operatic culture of the 1890s. I then ponder the assumed Italian lineage of bel canto singing and Melba’s claim to belong within it. Finally I examine the fin-de-siècle aesthetic ideals of bel canto in dialogue with contemporary discourse around Melba’s voice as a sonic object, gesturing towards the proximity of bel canto technique and the emerging, high-tech auditory fantasies of the new century.