Shod in beaten up Doc Marten 8-ups and flannel, I may have appeared less than open-minded to many people as a teenager. Always searching for something to believe in and something to fight for I was the stereotypical Gen-X’r. I was anti-animal testing, pro- Body Shop and anti- Kate Moss. I listened to loud music, hung out with the wrong crowd and sometimes got into trouble. As a group, we thought we were different; different from what had come before us and the authority figures currently in front of us. We were going to change the world – but please just wait until we finished our cigarettes and listened to the latest Soundgarden album. As a group I guess Gen-X was different from other groups but as a member of the group we were all one and the same.
Ripped jeans? Yes. Play guitar? Yes. Write angry poetry? Yes. Want to die before you get old? Yes.
Yet, behind my uniform scowl I was a girl with a secret love. A hidden admiration for someone long gone and someone her friends would ridicule her for if they found out. To find what I was looking for I had to be the strange kid who hung out in a cemetery to focus and I hid in a museum to do the same thing. I would listen and smile on the inside as the world continued around me.
No one ever knew, but I loved to lose myself in the voice of Dame Nellie Melba.
I spent the first twenty-two years of my life in a town called Lilydale in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. If you were looking for action and adventure, Lilydale was not the place to find it. For most people, the most exciting thing about the place was the annual agricultural show. Every November you could eat corn dogs, make out with the ride operators and get drunk as you watched fireworks explode overhead. For some of us though, there was something else that was more exciting. We shared our home with the memory of opera star Dame Nellie Melba and from an early age her voice intrigued me.
As a child I learnt about Dame Nellie Melba in primary school. If you lived in the area you couldn’t help knowing who she was. She was an opera singer and also the most important, world famous export the town had ever had. Her Australian home was in Coldstream, the next town over from Lilydale, and was called Coombe Cottage. It was built in the 1800’s and a monumental part of local history. Every time we drove past my parents would say “oh that’s where Dame Nellie Melba used to live”. As a child I wondered what was over the hedges as they were too high to see over. I used to even dream about it, like it was some kind of a secret garden and I had the key to get in. I dreamt about parties and high society and all sorts of amazing things that may have happened over the walls back in the day.
As I got older and was able to wander about town by myself, I used to visit her grave at the local cemetery. People assumed I was just some crazy Goth kid hanging out amongst the dead but I wasn’t in the cemetery for that. It was local legend that you could hear Dame Nellie Melba sing at her grave so I would sit for hours and do just that. Listen. I’d hear the trees rustling in the wind and the magpies and cockatoos screeching but I’d just focus and concentrate and try to hear her voice. I figured it was all a matter of letting your imagination run wild. And, yes I heard her. I heard her sing to me.
When I was older still I volunteered to work at the historical society after visiting there with school. There was an entire room dedicated to Dame Nellie Melba. It was dusty and antiquated and full of everyday things: plates, menus, gowns, chairs, and sashes – all sorts of stuff. But there was something else; the room played her records. This was before the internet so it wasn’t as easy to listen to music like hers for the secret fan like me, so I loved to just stand there and listen. When people would ask me why I was working there I would tell them it was because I wanted to work in a museum. That was only partly true. Yes, I did plan on being a curator that was in fact true, but there was also another reason. I worked there to listen to her sing.
Dame Nellie Melba was talented, famous and lived all over the world, in the end but she chose to be buried in Lilydale with “Addio senza rancore, Farewell without bitterness” etched into her grave. Now, more than 100 years later, I too am a woman who left Lilydale. I left more than ten years ago and I now live in a whole other hemisphere. My life is now so different from that I had as a flannel clad teenager, it feels like I’ve had two separate lives. She chose to go back. I wonder when it’s my time if I will choose to do the same.