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

Image of Energy Minister Angus Taylor.

Meet and bleat

Australia’s emissions targets have been soft – they’re about to get harder

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction

Image of whale sculpture

Inner space

Taking to London’s streets in lockdown, with thoughts of Orwell and Henry Miller, plagues, eels, decorative cakes and what might be done in the belly of a whale

Image of album artwork for Brazen Hussies soundtrack

Song sisters

The soundtrack to documentary ‘Brazen Hussies’ shows a breadth of feeling about women’s liberation in Australia


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

Image of Oodgeroo Noonuccal at Sydney Town Hall, 1970

In times like these, what would Oodgeroo do?

On the influence of Aboriginal poet, activist and educator Oodgeroo Noonuccal

Image of whale sculpture

Inner space

Taking to London’s streets in lockdown, with thoughts of Orwell and Henry Miller, plagues, eels, decorative cakes and what might be done in the belly of a whale

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Which jobs and what growth?

We need to talk about the economy

Image of Earth from the Moon

Pale blue dot

The myth of the ‘overview effect’, and how it serves space industry entrepreneurs


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 Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction

Image of album artwork for Brazen Hussies soundtrack

Song sisters

The soundtrack to documentary ‘Brazen Hussies’ shows a breadth of feeling about women’s liberation in Australia

Warrior culture

The allegations of Australian war crimes have shattered the national digger mythology

Fever dream

A vision of America in November 2021


×
×