Opera costume worn by Dame Nellie Melba

Made in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia, C.1910.

Legendary soprano Dame Nellie Melba was born Helen Porter Mitchell in Melbourne in 1861. She began her stage career in Brussels in 1887 and triumphed two years later at London’s Covent Garden in ‘Romeo et Juliette’. From that date onwards, she appeared regularly at Covent Garden and the New York Metropolitan Opera, becoming one of the highest paid singers of the day.

In 1904 she began a recording career and her records are said to have helped establish a market for the gramophone. She spent Wor...


Object No.


Physical Description

Costume, opera, dress, worn by Dame Nellie Melba, velvet/silk/cotton/leather/metal, maker unknown, c.1910
Full length empire line dress in fawn silk velvet and silk with velvet trim. Square neck edged with black velvet and cream silk. High waisted, slightly boned bodice meets skirt with a row of very rough stitching. Long skirt part of dress is finished with a strip of black velvet edged with cream silk. The skirt back is gathered onto the waist forming a short train. The long sleeves of the costume consist of bands of puffy cream silk (very tattered) and tight fawn velvet edged with black velvet. The sleeve ends with a curved cuff, and the long forearm section is tied at the back with criss-crossed black silk ribbon, which pulls together boned edges. Centre back opening fastens via two leather strips which hold a series of black enamelled hooks and eyes in place, threaded with a length of black ribbon. The bodice is lined with cream brushed cotton, the skirt with light brown cotton, and the cuffs with cream silk damask. The velvet on the back is very worn, and the costume has been repaired in several places (mainly on the back). The register at the Sydney Opera House speculates that the "condition of this piece is character driven."



440 mm



The designer and maker are not known.

Melba sang the part of Marguerite in 'Faust' from 1899 to c.1924 and the costume probably dates from c.1910.





Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931) was a legendary soprano. Born Helen Porter Mitchell in Melbourne, she began her stage career in Brussels in 1887 and triumphed two years later at London's Covent Garden in 'Romeo et Juliette'. From that day onwards she appeared regularly at Covent Garden and the New York Metropolitan Opera, becoming one of the highest paid singers of her day.

Melba's world tours often included Australia and were hugely popular. In 1902 the takings of one Sydney concert set a world record. When Melba made her Covent Garden farewell in 1926, the concert programme summed up her achievemnts as 'years of almost monotonous brilliance.'

Melba made her first appearance as Marguerite in 'Faust' at Covent Garden in 1899 and sang the part until her farewell season. She prepared for the part under the personal instruction of the composer Charles Gounod. It is thought that she wore this costume as Marguerite around 1910.

Given to Barbara Firth by Hilda Mulligan, a retired director of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, who had a collection of opera costumes. Donated by Barbara Firth to the Sydney Opera House around 1973. Transferred from the Dennis Wolanski Library, Sydney Opera House to the Powerhouse Museum in 1998.


Sydney Opera House


Melba, Nellie c. 1910


Credit Line

Gift of Sydney Opera House Trust, 1998

Acquisition Date

10 March 1998

Cite this Object


Opera costume worn by Dame Nellie Melba 2018, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 15 November 2018, <https://ma.as/163391>


{{cite web |url=https://ma.as/163391 |title=Opera costume worn by Dame Nellie Melba |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=15 November 2018 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}


This object record is currently incomplete. Other information may exist in a non-digital form. The Museum continues to update and add new research to collection records.

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