The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: Attention, Downton Abbey fans! Here is what you should know about the history of the real-life opera singers in last week’s episode in which Dame Kiri Te Kanawa portrayed Dame Nellie Melba. | January 18, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

No doubt about it, “Downton Abbey” has become a global television drama phenomenon. Fans of the new season, which started two weeks ago, are eagerly looking forward to the third installment of the new season that will air this Sunday night on PBS  (and Wisconsin Public Television at 8 p.m. CST).

Just how seriously “Downton Abbey” writers and producers also take the show could be seen in last week’s episode. There is where a side plot and secondary character -– a special gala performance by the Australian opera diva Dame Nellie Melba – was taken seriously. Where should she stay? was one issue. Another was whether a performing artist like Melba, who had been privately hired for a small command performance in the salon (below) should eat with the servants and help or with the aristocratic landowners? 

melba concert downton abbey

And how many of you realized that Nellie Melba was played by the New Zealand opera diva Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (below)? The Ear sure didn’t, but now he knows why the singing of Puccini arias and Dvorak songs sounded so good.

Kiri Te Kanawa as Nellie Melba

In fact, the historical episode was taken so seriously that NPR’s terrific blog “Deceptive Cadence” this week posted a primer on just how important, acclaimed and controversial the real Nellie Melba (below, in a photo taken around 1900, and singing at the bottom in a YouTube was) really was.

nellie melba ca 1900

Here is a link to Episode 2 of Season 4 that aired last week on “Masterpiece Theatre” and can be streamed via the Internet or viewed in an encore broadcast this Sunday night at 7 p.m. CST:

Here is a link to the NPR story about Nellie Melba and the episode:

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  1. Jake, you are wonderful to see through my tactful dig at you and to respond as you did. I would not completely blame you, however, for the attitude of American society. Composers, librettists, playwrights, screen script writers… all add to the difficulty of Kiri and other ‘experienced’ stars finding appropriate roles.
    I must share with you a story about Kiri. I heard her sing with the London Symphony in perhaps 1972. She was a stunningly beautiful up & coming singer at that time. It became obvious, at the end of her performance, she was not yet used to singing with symphony orchestras. She did not know how to get off the stage and showed her discomfort and confusion. The conductor kindly took her hand and led her off stage. I blame her voice teacher for not teaching her how to manage this.

    Comment by Margaret Ingraham — January 19, 2014 @ 3:59 pm

  2. Jake, your comment saying Kiri Te Kanawa’s stage days may be pretty well past her, is strange to me. It reflects an American attitude toward female performing artists, I am afraid. I recall hearing Victoria de Los Angeles sing a recital at Ravinia, when in her 70s … and she never impressed me more. She may have chosen songs which did not have challenging high notes, but she communicated with a depth of life experience, which I had never heard from her when she was younger. She may have replaced something she lost with something she gained. So, why should Kiri not continue to perform??
    Margaret Ingraham

    Comment by Margaret Ingraham — January 19, 2014 @ 1:44 pm

    • Hi Margaret,
      By using “strange” and “American attitude,” I think you really mean to say that you find my remark sexist or ageist or both. I don’t think that is the case, consciously or unconsciously. Kiri Te Kanawa was not just a singer; starting in 1968, she was known primarily as a very popular and widely booked opera singer. But she rarely does operas any more, focusing instead on teaching. And she has recorded only one CD in the past seven years. Singers do indeed “age out” sooner than other musicians, much like many athletes. That Te Kanawa can still sign beautifully I do not doubt. Please go back to my 20089 blog post in which I said I preferred her in her prime to Renee Fleming in her prime. But Kiri is beyond her prime, though she can still beautiful music beautifully and move listeners. However, the facts stand: she acts less and sings less in opera; she records less; and she tours less. Her stage career is not over, but most of it is indeed behind her. She seems to me to be winding down and reaching the career stage that you described — special appearances in recitals, much like I saw with Leontyne Price in Madison after she stopped appearing in operas, or, in the case of “Downton Abbey,” in a television cameo, which was a smart move on Kiri’s part. I expect we will still be hearing from her for a while, but not like we used to. But let’s hear from other readers and singing fans what they think about what you and I have said.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 19, 2014 @ 2:13 pm

  3. I like the performance by Melba you included, Jake. I think I can hear Australia in her Italian vowels. The script for the Melba/Te Kanawa performance was unfortunate. When a series has to strain to give the viewer a plot, writers often go too far.

    Comment by Allan Deptula — January 18, 2014 @ 9:30 am

    • Hi Allan,
      I agree with you about the historical performance and recording by Melba.
      But I disagree about the Downton Abbey writing in that I thought the plot was a pretty good way to highlight the differences and tensions between the earl and his wife — between male and female points of views about the post World Water I social world — about how to treat an entertainment celebrity who isn’t really upper-class.
      It also provided an instance of how much money the uppers had to spend on amusing themselves and promoting themselves.
      Plus it provided a pretty ingenious way to allow a serious and well-known contemporary performing artist to make a cameo appearance and fit into in an appropriate historical fiction role. (Kiri’s stage days are pretty much post her, I would bet.)
      But there is room to disagree.
      I would like to see what other readers think on both counts.

      Comment by welltemperedear — January 18, 2014 @ 9:41 am

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