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

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Cap in hand

An unprecedented twist in the Walkley Award–winning story of the David Eastman murder case

Failing our kids

A decade of debate about school funding, and we’re going backwards

Photo of Liam Gallagher

Don’t look back in anger: Liam and Noel Gallagher

As interest in Oasis resurges, talking to the combative brothers recalls their glory years as ‘dirty chancers, stealing riffs instead of Ford Fiestas’

Image from ‘Atlantics’

Mati Diop’s haunting ‘Atlantics’

The French-Senegalese director channels ancient fables and contemporary nightmares in this ghostly love story


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

Photo of Stasi agent

Stasiland now

Thirty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the author of ‘Stasiland’ reveals the ongoing power of the former East German regime, not just in politics and business but also in shaping perceptions of victimhood in unified Germany

Image of US troops in Syria

Peace with dishonour

On the West’s Trump-led exit from the wreckage of the Middle East

Image of Alan Bond and Bob Hawke

Australia 2.0

The America’s Cup winged keel and the transformation of a nation

Image of family members of Tanya Day

Remember her name

Were systemic racism and unconscious bias among police officers behind the death in custody of Tanya Day?


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 from ‘Atlantics’

Mati Diop’s haunting ‘Atlantics’

The French-Senegalese director channels ancient fables and contemporary nightmares in this ghostly love story

Image of Nasty Cherry

‘I’m with the Band: Nasty Cherry’

This Netflix series pays lip service to female empowerment in the music industry, but ultimately reinforces its limits

Image from ‘The Crown’

Streaming highlights: November 2019

‘The Crown’, ‘For All Mankind’ and ‘Dickinson’ offer new perspectives on history, and pragmatism meets pyramid schemes in ‘On Becoming a God in Central Florida’

Image of Quarterly Essay 76: Red Flag

What does China want from Australia?

On Australia’s efforts to resist Beijing’s campaign for influence – A Quarterly Essay extract


×
×