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

December 2005 - January 2006

From the front page

John Setka quits Labor

Anthony Albanese gets a much-needed win… of sorts

Illustration

A traditional landscape

The UAE hosts a rare public exhibition for the colossal native title painting ‘Ngurrara Canvas II’

Illustration

Broome’s bushman astronomer

Greg Quicke’s mission to help people understand the stars

Hard-pressed

The government appears to be dragging its heels on media law reform


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

Collaroy, New South Wales

Rising tide

Dealing with sea-level rise when private property is at stake

Illustration

The desertification of Australian culture

How the diminishing government support for the arts is taking its toll

Photograph of Jaymes Todd.

A man who hates women

The killing of Eurydice Dixon and the sentencing of Jaymes Todd

Image of Prime MInister Scott Morrison

Howard’s Heir: On Scott Morrison and his suburban aspirations

How the PM’s ‘Quiet Australians’ echoes Howard’s battlers and Menzies’ ‘Forgotten People’


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

Photograph of Harold Bloom

Canon salute

Remembering Harold Bloom (July 11, 1930 – October 14, 2019)

Image from ‘Judy’

Clang, clang, clang: ‘Judy’

The Judy Garland biopic confuses humiliation for homage

Image of Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese

Climate of blame

Labor runs the risk of putting expediency over principle

Afterwards, nothing is the same: Shirley Hazzard

On the splendour of the acclaimed author’s distinctly antipodean seeing


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