During the nineteenth century, opera became a global phenomenon. Beginning with the dissemination of Rossini’s unprecedentedly popular works in the 1820s, operatic culture spread from its strongholds in major European cities to new urban markets on other continents. By the end of the century, opera’s worldwide transit had become an essential characteristic of the art form – one in dialogue with a complex layering of communication networks. In this paper I seek to explore this fundamental mobility by focussing on one particular instance of opera on the move: the paradigmatic international path taken by the renowned soprano Nellie Melba.
Born in Australia, Melba moved to Paris in 1886 to complete her training. Following her European debut in Brussels in 1887, she spent much of the next half-decade travelling between London and Paris: cities whose competing claims to be Capital of the Nineteenth Century were staked in this instance on attempted appropriations of this most distantly travelled soprano star. Melba’s peregrinations around Europe’s major cities in the early 1890s followed long-established routes; but in 1893 she crossed the Atlantic to make a wildly successful debut at the newly rebuilt Metropolitan Opera in New York. My paper examines the consequences of Melba’s American triumph and of the changing operatic order it seemed to epitomise. Taking a cue from recent calls in the history of technology for ‘use histories’ able to address the persistence of the old after the dawning of the new, I place Melba’s New York success in a larger geographical context, considering its effects in the venerable operatic centres she had left behind. I want, in other words, to consider how opera’s expanding topography at the end of the nineteenth century complicated its status and discourses in an increasingly anxious Old World; and, more broadly still, to explore the role of operatic performance and discourse in the mediation, refiguring and dissemination of local cultural identities within the fin-de-siècle cosmopolis.