December 2005 - January 2006

Encounters

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Nellie Melba & Enrico Caruso

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

If Nellie Melba and Enrico Caruso were each major attractions, their double act was a sensation. Between them, the imperious Australian soprano and the effusive Italian tenor transformed La Boheme from a slow-burn sleeper into a blockbuster hit that is still putting bums on seats a century later. Theirs was the golden age of the warbler, a time when new technologies were turning opera singers into household names and high culture into big bucks. Melba knew exactly what she was worth and she made it her business to collect every plaudit and every penny of it. Woe betide anyone who tried to short-change, outshine or upstage her.

Nor was Caruso any slouch in the fame-and-fortune department. His velvet voice won him millions of fans, and his name on a phonograph record or a playbill was a licence to print money. But the puckish poor boy from backstreet Naples was generous to a fault and wore his celebrity a lot more lightly than the prima donna from Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne.

If Melba was the queen of the opera, London’s Covent Garden was her palace, one she guarded jealously from new and rival talent. Little wonder the up-and-coming Caruso could not stop himself from committing a diva-deflating act of lese-majeste. During the 1902 season of La Boheme, while singing the tender aria “Che gelida manina, se la lasci riscaldar” (Your tiny hand is frozen, let me warm it here in mine), he covertly pressed a hot Italian sausage into her captive hand. As the starvation-dazed seamstress Mimi, she should probably have snaffled it. Instead she gave a yelp and sent it skittering across the stage, to the puzzlement of the audience.

“You filthy dago,” she hissed.

“English lady no like sausage?” he asked, feigning hurt. Dry toast was more to Melba’s taste, of course, and a poached peach with ice-cream and raspberry sauce, although she did complain that she was being chiselled out of her royalties by Ritz and Escoffier. Caruso, when he wasn’t slipping the sausage to sopranos, enjoyed nothing more than a hearty feed of spaghetti with mushrooms and chicken livers, a dish that came to bear his name. His career was cut short at 48 when he succumbed to a fatal attack of pleurisy, a disease of the lungs.

Acutely image-conscious to the last, Melba died at 69 of septicemia resulting from a facelift. The face survived. It can be seen on the $100 note, a fact that would surely have pleased the original Material Girl.

Shane Maloney and Chris Grosz

Shane Maloney is a writer and the author of the award-winning Murray Whelan series of crime novels. His 'Encounters', illustrated by Chris Grosz, have been published in a collection, Australian Encounters.

Chris Grosz is a book illustrator, painter and political cartoonist. He has illustrated newspapers and magazines such as the Age, the Bulletin and Time.

Cover: December 2005 - January 2006
View Edition

From the front page

Composite image of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (images via ABC News)

Border farce

So much for the national plan

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions


In This Issue

Enough already!

Peter Jensen

‘Vulture’; ‘Sunday Arts’; ‘The Movie Show’ on ABC-TV

Mr. Huge

Alan Woods and his amazing computer. A nags-to-riches-story

How many sleeps?

Nothing prepares a parent for the day their partner does a runner and takes the children

More in The Monthly Essays

Friday prayers at Pul-e Khishti mosque in Kabul soon after the Taliban took control on August 15, 2021

War of error

US failures in Afghanistan and the folly of Australia’s unquestioning support

Image of theatre stage with empty chairs

Drama in hell

The descent of creative arts at Australia’s universities

A spiral galaxy in the Coma Berenices constellation. Photographed at Lick Observatory, California, in the late 1800s.

The search for extraterrestrial minds

That we understand the nature of the cosmos has profound implications in the search for life

Image of dog with face masks

The pandemic and the shrinking of Australian politics

Rather than prompting reform, the COVID emergency has hardened the major parties’ neoliberal ideology


More in Encounters

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Rupert Murdoch & Kamahl

Mark Oliphant & J Robert Oppenheimer

John Monash & King George V

John Howard & Uri Geller


Read on

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions

Image showing from left: The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Gladys Berejiklian and Thomas the Tank Engine

The little premier that might have

Does unquestioning, childish enthusiasm have a place in politics?