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2024 marks one hundred years since the Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Season of 1924, the most ambitious display of operatic talent to be seen in Australia. ROGER NEILL explores the events surrounding this mighty undertaking.

Building a Grand Opera Company

melba 04Melba, photographed by Ionides, London. National Library of Australia, Canberra.
The 1924 opera season in Australia organised by Dame Nellie Melba and J.C. Williamson Ltd. was not the first. That had been in 1911. And it was not the last, which was in 1928. But it was substantially bigger, more ambitious than 1911. Overall, eighteen operas were performed (compared to twelve in 1911). Critics and audiences in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide revelled in the overall quality of the company, although there was criticism that the only work new to Australia was Giordano’s Andrea Chenier, which was already twenty-eight years old.

The deal between Nellie Melba and ‘The Firm’, J.C. Williamson’s, to form a Grand Opera Company to perform in Australia in 1924 was announced to the world on 29 January 1923. And, on behalf of The Firm, their London rep Nevin Tait travelled to Europe with the putative artistic director of the new company, Henry Russell, and Dame Nellie in search of the principal singers for the projected twenty-plus operas that the company planned to give. It was expected that the little gang would search in Milan, Naples, Rome, Paris, Brussels and Vienna.

The Firm had dominated the performing arts in Australia since it opened in 1882, employing shoals of talented Australians and bringing in important actors, singers and musicians from overseas. Five Tait brothers1 merged their business with The Firm in 1920.

Henry Russell first met Nellie Melba at a dinner party he organised in London in 1896—over a quarter of a century earlier—the other guests including the novelist George Moore and Melba’s future partner, the Australian playwright Haddon Chambers. At that time, Russell was principally a singing teacher in London (Melba sent him pupils). Later he was an impresario, managing the Boston Opera Company for many years. His half-brother, Landon Ronald, was a regular conductor and accompanist for Melba. Henry had had a distinctly on-off relationship with Melba.

In the event, according to Russell’s memoirs, Melba, Russell and Nevin Tait went first to Paris, then Naples, the ‘capital of the world’s music’ in the eighteenth century according to Count Charles de Brosses, and home of the famous San Carlo opera house. In Naples, aside from the young soprano Lina Scavizzi, they drew a blank, so they went next to Milan, home of the prestigious Teatro alla Scala, where, Russell wrote, ‘practically the entire company were engaged’.

Melba left the two men in Naples, sailing on the Orsova, having been taken ill. She returned via Plymouth to London, where she had a ‘serious operation’.2  It appears therefore that Melba herself had little role in auditioning and choosing the majority of the selected singers. However, she made a good recovery and on 1 June appeared at Covent Garden as Mimì in La bohème with the British National Opera Company, the king and queen in attendance (George V and Mary). She and her Rodolfo, Joseph Hislop, sang in Italian, while the rest of the company and the chorus sang in English. That midsummer season at Covent Garden, the BNOC was well-stacked with Australasians, including Florence Austral, Rosina Buckman, Beatrice Miranda, Leah Russel-Myre, Elsy Treweek, Fred Collier, Browning Mummery, Horace Stevens, conductor Aylmer Buesst and Melba—very much the cream of their generation.3

Initially, it had made sense for the scouting team to have discussions with the BNOC’s management about the possibility that the BNOC might be hired lock, stock and barrel for the forthcoming Melba-Williamson Australian season in 1924. In the end, this proved impossible, resulting in the European recruitment tour. Aside from recruiting many of the leading singers for the company in Milan, Russell and Tait also approached the musical director of La Scala, the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini, to lead the new company. Toscanini declined their offer and instead they hired two other highly regarded conductors, the Argentinian Franco Paolantonio and the Italian Arnaldo Schiavoni.

Clearly, their time in Milan was well-spent, and by early May they were able to announce that they had secured many of the leading singers (most of whom were Italian):

  • Up-and-coming twenty-five-year-old soprano Lina Scavizzi, who had made her name in the title role of Zandonai’s Francesca da Rimini and was currently singing Tosca at the San Carlo in Naples, where she was heard and chosen by Melba (before the diva retired hurt)
  • Soprano Augusta Concato from Verona, who had been engaged by Toscanini at La Scala in 1921
  • Concato’s husband, tenor Nino Piccaluga, a favourite at La Scala from 1922
  • Dramatic tenor Antonio Marques from Barcelona, who was singing Otello at the Teatro Dal Terme in Milan when Russell and Tait first heard him
  • Baritone Apollo Granforte was an established top-flight star—at La Scala and in Rome, Naples (where he became a close friend of Pietro Mascagni), Paris, Buenos Aires, Malta and Switzerland; he turned thirty-eight during the tour
  • Another baritone, Mario Basiola, was announced as booked, but in the event did not travel
  • Lyric tenor Dino Borgioli—twenty-six at the start of the tour—came to La Scala (and Toscanini) soon after the end of the First World War, building over time an international career; married to the Australian soprano, Patricia Mort4
  • Polish mezzo-soprano Aga Lahoska, whose real name, simplified for Australian readers, was Aga Lachowska de Romanska; she had built a strong reputation at the Teatro Reale in Madrid and the Liceu in Barcelona
  • Basso Gaetano Azzolini, who was famous for his comedic buffo roles at La Scala
  • Umberto Di Lelio, another basso, who sang at La Scala from 1921, his repertoire there including Klingsor in Parsifal, Sparafucile in Rigoletto and Valaam in Boris Godunov

Lastly, but most importantly, Russell and Tait signed up the rising-star lyric soprano, Toti Dal Monte. It had become clear to the two men that, although Melba had been promised to the Australian public as singing in every production, in 1924 she would be sixty-three-years-old and in unreliable health—and they had to find adequate cover for her, not just another soprano, but a star name. Toti had made her debut at La Scala (no less) in 1916 in the first performance of Zandonai’s Francesca di Rimini and in 1922 under Toscanini she was sensational there as Gilda in Rigoletto and Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor. She was going to sing at the Colon in Buenos Aires before coming on to Australia. She would be thirty-years-old by the time she arrived in Australia. But how would the two divas get on?

Early reports in Australia of the recruitment drive in Milan referred to the ‘courtesy and cooperation’ of Toscanini. ‘It is one of the finest companies organised in any part of the world,’ wrote Toscanini to Sir George Tallis at Williamson’s, ‘for every artist is superb, and has won fame in their respective roles.’ However, later reports suggested that Toscanini was concerned that his company at La Scala had been seriously depleted.

Aside from the lead singers, Russell and Tait announced that they had signed up the other roles that an opera company would need in Australia in 1924. However, several of the names they announced were not in the final roster—these being the chorus master, ballet mistress and stage director—but two who did come were the prompter, Amleto Tornari and his mezzo-soprano wife Carmen Tornari, who would also provide leadership for the chorus. In the event, the chorus master was Roberto Zucchi, the ballet mistress Ines Arari Farinetti, and the stage director, her husband Carlo Farinetti.  

Over the coming months, other singers were hired, filling particular roles in the envisioned program of operas:  

  • Contralto Phyllis Archibald, the only British principal in the company; a pupil of Blanche Marchesi, she had first sung at Covent Garden in 1908, then again in the early 1920s with the BNOC and was now performing in Monte Carlo
  • Soprano Aurora Rettore, hired to sing Musetta in La bohème, Micaela in Carmen and other roles
  • Baritone Luigi Ceresol, who was to sing Scarpia in Tosca and other roles
  • French baritone Alfred Maguenat, who had sung with Melba in La bohème as Marcello at the reopening of Covent Garden in 1919, and
  • Another Frenchman, bass Gustave Huberdeau, who had been Benoit in the same production at Covent Garden
  • Baritone Antonio Laffi, who sang mostly secondary roles
  • Edmondo Grandini, another baritone, who had sung principally at Rome and Parma (where he was born)
  • Tenor Bettino Capelli, who joined the company in Sydney; he had sung leading roles with the Gonzalez Opera Company in Australia in 1916
  • Tenor Luigi Cilla, who had specialised in comprimario roles in Italian houses
  • Tenor Alfred O’Shea, an Australian with Irish parents, who had been supported in Britain by impresario Nevin Tait
  • Another Australian, soprano Stella Power, the ‘Little Melba’; she was spotted by Melba in 1917, who arranged her debut and took her to America.

A third conductor was added to the company roster in the form of Frank St Leger, who was billed by the local press as an Australian but was in reality born in India to British parents and who later became an American citizen. Before the war he had toured Australia as pianist with the Cherniavsky Trio, after which he served for two years in the Australian army, then was accompanist-conductor for Melba, mainly in America.

A curious addition to the company in Australia was the Russian Prince Alexis Obolensky, a bass who had been taught by Henry Russell. He had been a captain in the Imperial Russian Army in the First World War, but after the revolution had fled, penniless with his family, first to France, then to New York. He was to sing minor roles with the company and was frequently noted among the celebrities in the audience.

In all, the company claimed to have brought seventy singers to Australia from Europe, among them the twenty-three principals detailed above. But it was clear from the outset that, aside from Melba, there were three that stood out above the rest—soprano Toti Dal Monte, tenor Dino Borgioli and baritone Apollo Granforte.

A final significant figure to join the party was Nellie Melba’s new friend, the English novelist Beverley Nichols. They first met when Nichols was covering a shock-horror adultery case for his newspaper in London. He sought out Melba to get a comment and they developed an immediate rapport. The consequence was that he accompanied her to social events. She talked extensively with him about her life—an autobiography ghosted by Nichols was discussed—and he accompanied her in Australia for the 1924 tour. Their relationship prompted speculation, one anonymous letter describing Nichols as a ‘Pommie gigolo’, although he was in reality gay.

In the months running up to the opening of the season in Melbourne, the Australian press was fed relentlessly with puff stories on a daily basis about the operas to be performed and the singers who would sing them. These stories were provided to the press by the company’s publicity manager, in Sydney, Claude Kingston, who later wrote: ‘I thought I knew something about theatrical publicity but alongside Melba I was a tyro.’5 

But this was not all smooth sailing: the prices of tickets were to be far in advance of what the Australian public was used to. Of course they were, responded Russell and Tait. This had been a much more expensive enterprise. Secondly, the press stirred up much antipathy and trade-union wrath when it realised that not only the principal singers, but also many of the chorus were to be imported from Italy. We need seasoned professionals in the chorus, not Australian amateurs, responded Russell. In fact, while most of the male chorus came from Milan, most of the women came from Melba’s Albert Street Conservatorium in Melbourne.

Lastly, in the days immediately before the opening, Henry Russell made a speech at a Rotary Club luncheon in Melbourne which lambasted musical comedy as a grossly inferior form and talked about scantily-clad girls with their naked legs running around the stage. Even for Australia in 1924, this was all seen as unnecessarily patronising and sexist and Melba will have realised immediately that the resulting publicity took the public’s attention away from the little matter of the opening of her company—with Melba as Mimì. It was the beginning of the end for Russell.6

The majority of the company, including most of the Italians—both principals and chorus—arrived in Melbourne on the Mongolia from Naples on 24 March 1924, just five days before Melba and La bohème opened.

Opening week in Melbourne

The Melba-Williamson Grand Opera Company’s season finally opened with Puccini’s La bohème at Her Majesty’s Theatre (renamed His Majesty’s for the duration) on Saturday 29 March 1924. La bohème was first performed at the Teatro Reggio in Turin in 1896 with a star cast conducted by Toscanini. Initially, it was a failure. It came first to Australia in 1901, brought by Williamson’s Italian Opera Company with Dalia Bassich (from Trieste) as Mimì and Carlo Dani as Rodolfo.

The opening was billed as a ‘Gala’ and the glitterati of Melbourne and beyond were there in force, including the Governor-General of Australia and Lady Forster, the Governor of Victoria with the Countess of Stradbroke, the Governor of Queensland (Sir Matthew Nathan) and several other VIPs.

More widely, the audience (especially in the galleries above the stalls) exhibited ‘great enthusiasm’ for the performance. Melbourne’s The Age gave it a lengthy review,7 Melba noted particularly for the freshness of her singing (allowances being made for her advanced age) and for the vigour of her Mimì—no fragility there. In the early part of her career, Melba had been trained as, and become famed for, her extraordinary brilliance and flexibility in so-called bel canto roles, in operas by Rossini, Donizetti and others, but as the years passed, this repertoire became more difficult to maintain at the level of excellence that her public had come to expect of her, while, fortuitously, the newly arrived composers wrote music less demanding technically, the new style becoming known as verismo.

And Melba seized on to these new operas—by Mascagni, Leoncavallo and especially Puccini’s La bohème. She was to learn the role of Mimì with the composer and personally built its popularity internationally.8 She had previously sung the role in Australia in 1911 with the first Melba-Williamson Company. It became so strongly associated with Melba that by 1924 it was natural that she should open the season of her new opera company in it and take the lead role.

However, The Age’s reviewer was far less effusive about the other principals: as Rodolfo, Nino Piccaluga was not Caruso nor Bonci (Caruso’s current major international competitor), and he was replaced from 19 April by the Sydney tenor Alfred O’Shea; as Musetta, Aurora Rettore was not Rosina Buckman; the conductor Franco Paolantonio was not ‘Julius Knoch’, who had conducted the Quinlan Company from Britain in 1912. Knoch seems to have been misremembered by the critic—he doubtless meant Ernst Knoch.

The remainder of the principal roles were dismissed summarily by The Age: Di Lelio’s Colline was ‘capable’ (replaced by Gustave Huberdeau from 19 April); Ceresol’s Marcello was ‘interesting’ (and was replaced by Alfred Maguenat from 8 April); Laffi’s Schaunard ‘bright’; and Azzolini’s Benoit and Alcindoro ‘could have got more humour’ out of the roles. Altogether, not a ringing first endorsement of Russell and Tait’s recruitment drive. However, the chorus was ‘first class’.

Two evenings later, on the Monday 31st (Sundays being still closed to theatrical entertainments in Australia), saw the introduction of two of the major stars recruited in Italy—Toti Dal Monte and Dino Borgioli—both taking the lead roles in Donizetti’s tragic opera Lucia di Lammermoor, Toti in the title role and Dino as her lover Edgardo. Based on a Walter Scott novel, Lucia di Lammermoor was first produced at the San Carlo theatre in Naples in 1838 and swiftly established itself as one of Donizetti’s finest and a great testsof bel canto singing for the lead soprano. It became a favoured vehicle for the greatest sopranos, including Melba, and had been introduced to Australia in 1855 at the Royal Victoria Theatre in Sydney with Theodosia Guerin as Lucia.9

According to The Argus, Toti received ‘tumultuous applause’ for her performance, which supported well that of co-star Borgioli:

Her musicianship is well-nigh perfect ... Apt acting and expressive gesture were aids to the understanding of Signor Dino Borgioli’s well-graced Edgar, who sang with untiring energy and buoyancy in an expressive voice of ringing quality.

Russell and the Taits must have been delighted, not to mention Nellie Melba, who appeared on stage at the end next to the young pretender, announcing: ‘I am a proud woman tonight, because it is in a little measure through me that this great artist has come here.’ Lucia had been one of her signature roles earlier in her career, a great test of vocal prowess, and both Toti and Dino had come through that test triumphantly.

Others of the imported principals also did well enough said The Argus: Grandini’s Enrico was ‘a conscientious piece of work’, and Di Lelio’s Raimondo ‘brought weight of voice and presence’. The chorus ‘did very effective work’, especially the women, ‘their freshness and purity being delightful’. It must have been a great relief to the whole management team that a Melba company without Melba could do so well.

The following night (Tuesday 1 April) brought the third opera and the third of the star imports, baritone Apollo Granforte as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, together with the young soprano Lina Scavizzi, who was specifically hired to sing this title role. It was first performed at the Teatro Costanzi in Rome in 1900 with Hariclea Darclée in the title role.

It is not clear why Melba never sang the role of Tosca on stage, but she did record the most famous aria, ‘Vissi d’arte’, four times (all of which survive). Melba had planned to sing Tosca during her first Melba-Williamson tour in 1911 but was unwell. She was replaced by the Polish soprano Janina Wayda (with John McCormack as Cavaradossi), who successfully led the first performance of the opera in Australia. The play La Tosca (by Victorien Sardou) had previously been given in Australia in 1891, in French by the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt.10

While Apollo Granforte’s Scarpia was very well received, it was Scavizzi’s Tosca that stirred up the greatest enthusiasm. The unnamed but perceptive critic for The Argus reported:

Tosca is so much more an acting than a singing role that it was a real appreciation that the audience found so satisfying a personality allied to the exposition of the exacting part as that of Signorina Lina Scavizzi … She captured the house immediately by the charm of her superb vocal art and her abundant histrionic resources.

Apollo Granforte as Scarpia was greeted by The Argus more modestly but with sincere admiration:

There may be insinuating treachery, sardonic humour, naked cruelty and even bestial triumph in the delineation of this repellent character … Signor Granforte, a strikingly powerful actor, evidently conscious of this pitfall, presented his Scarpia with reticence, yet without losing the requisite note of authority.

In tenor Piccaluga’s return to His Majesty’s stage after his success at the opening on Saturday, the third major role, Tosca’s lover Cavaradossi, was also well received:

Signor Nino Piccaluga was in the fullest sense of the word a dramatic tenor. At times, his vocalisation illustrated, to an extreme degree, the fundamental principle that song is, as a matter of fact, glorified speech.

And Arnaldo Schiavoni was well appreciated for his conducting, his debut for the company. Piccaluga was to return the following night (Wednesday 2nd) for a repeat performance of Rodolfo in La bohème, again with Melba as Mimì.

On the Thursday (3rd) was the first outing in the tour for Verdi’s Rigoletto with Toti Dal Monte as Gilda, Dino Borgioli as the Duke of Mantua and Apollo Granforte as the jester in the title role. This was another of what had been Melba’s signature roles, the one in which she had made her glorious debut at La Monnaie in Brussels in 1887. So this was a second perceived mountain for Toti to climb.

However, during the rehearsal period on the day before Rigoletto, an ’unhinged’ man burst into Toti’s dressing room at His Majesty’s. She screamed. Nevin Tait and a gaggle of singers rushed to her rescue, but the man had gone before they arrived. He was later apprehended, surrounded by chorus members. It all made good newspaper copy.

Toti’s performance reinforced the impression that here was a singer of special gifts. The Argus wrote:

Innocent Gilda must be, and innocent, even when in a way she has lost her innocence … But there was no insipidity in her portrayal. The beautiful love she has for her father gave the figure strength … ‘Caro nome’ probably proved an astonishment to many who have heard it sung in galloping fashion … Last night it came out quietly and mostly softly.  

‘As Rigoletto Apollo Granforte was highly impressive,’ The Argus continued: ‘He made the jester by no means a buffoon. He was a jester … apparently sick to death of playing the fool, and when expected to be amusing, merely cynical.’

And it seems that, as the Duke, Dino Borgioli followed Granforte’s lead by being ‘more serious and cynical than usual. Umberto Di Lelio was ‘grimly impressive’ as Sparafucile (replaced by Prince Obolensky on 26 April) and Antonio Laffi ‘cursed well’ as Monterone. Some minor roles were taken by Australians: Doris McInnes, Ruby Dixson, Ruby Miller and Victor Baxter.

The seventh night of the first week, Friday 4th, saw the presentation of the third opera by Puccini, Madama Butterfly. Like Tosca, Butterfly was another Puccini role that Melba never sang on stage, although she did maintain that he composed it with her in mind. Generally, the view has been that it did not suit her voice, although it may also have stretched her acting skills beyond their limits, and doubtless she knew this.

It had first been performed in Australia in March 1910, given by JC Williamson’s Opera Company at the Theatre Royal in Sydney. Butterfly/Cio-Cio-San was sung by Bel Sorel, Susuki by Rosina Buckman, Pinkerton by John Zerga and Sharpless by Antonio Zanelli. Initially, at La Scala in Milan in March 1904, it had been a fiasco, but it was revised and re-presented, conducted by Toscanini, at Brescia three months later, where it was hugely successful.

It is significant that the critic for The Argus leads off his/her review with a positive assessment of the production and design—‘a dream of loveliness’—not of the singing. Butterfly saw the debut of another Italian soprano, Augusta Concato, and The Argus was distinctly ambivalent:

Signorina Concato’s was an original and faintly fanciful reading of the character. She was more at home in the dramatic situations which develop as the story progresses than in those bright passages in which the impersonation of the carefree Butterfly’s enraptured ecstasy calls for a light touch ... Her vocalisation was at its best in comparatively quiet passages.

And Concato’s real-life husband, Nino Piccaluga, who was Pinkerton, was also greeted somewhat equivocally: ‘… an ungrateful part, which the tenor played on straightforward lines.’ Luigi Ceresol ‘sang admirably and with unfailing sympathy’ as Sharpless, while Carmen Tornari’s Susuki was ‘a most telling piece of work’. Victoria’s Ruby Dixson ‘was completely successful on all counts in the by no means easy part of Kate Pinkerton.’

The great and the good of Victoria and Australia more widely were there again, as they had been throughout the first week. There had been five operas in six nights, only La bohème being repeated. Box office takings had been excellent in spite of the high price of tickets. Audiences were thrilled by the performances and critics generally positive, especially towards the star imports—Toti Dal Monte, Dino Borgioli and Apollo Granforte—and the home hero, Nellie Melba.

Would this momentum be sustained through a long season with many more operas to come?


To be continued


Note on Spencer Shier

Many of the photographs included here were taken by the Melbourne-based portraitist Spencer Shier. He was born in 1884 and died at his home at Toorak in 1946. At his studio in Collins Street, he specialised in sittings with politicians, actors, singers, dancers and other society figures. During the Melba-Williamson Company’s season in Australia in 1924, he appears to have had special access to the artists and the productions. He also took movie film of Nellie Melba at home at Coombe Cottage in 1927. A portrait of Melba by Shier is on permanent display in her ‘artistic home’, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.



1. The Tait brothers were Charles, John Henry, Nevin, Edward, Frank

2. ‘Intestinal’ says John Hetherington  

3. Especially if one adds two other Australians who performed with the BNOC at Covent Garden around that time: Eda Bennie and Gertrude Johnson

4. Borgioli toured Australia again in 1938

5. Kingston went on to outline the story of Melba arriving in Sydney and telling the assembled press that she was covered in fleabites from the train—a ruse in order to stoke up publicity; however, the event had actually happened two years earlier

6. Russell also forbade Melba from singing Margérite in Fausta serious mistake—and Melba ‘let him go’

7. Each opening in the Melba-Williamson season of 1924 was reviewed by half a dozen and more newspapers, principally in Melbourne and Sydney; the two leading Melbourne papers, The Age and The Argus, routinely gave most space; overall I judged The Argus’s critic there to have most insight and best judgement

8. See Theatre Heritage Australia - Melba and the Rise of La bohème

9. She was born Theodosia Yates in 1815, then was successively Mrs Stirling, Mrs Guerin and Mrs Stewart

10. And the La Tosca play was repeated in Australia after Sarah Bernhardt’s tour by Mrs Brown Potter (1890), Nance O'Neil (1900) and Tittell Brune (1906)