In 1902, Dame Nellie Melba made a triumphant return to Australia for her first homecoming tour since leaving for Europe 16 years earlier as an ambitious young singer. In the interim, Mrs Charles Armstrong – as she was known when she left – had gained a new name and established herself as one of the most famous and feted opera singers in the world. A true diva.

Emma Matthews, Annie Aitken and Genevieve Lemon. Photograph © Clare Hawley

Adoring crowds greeted her everywhere she went. “Melbamania has come to Melbourne,” wrote the social magazine Table Talk. As part of her tour, she performed at the Melbourne Town Hall – the venue where she had sung her first adult concert many years ago. And it is here that the new Australian musical Melba begins.

Using a tried and true convention, writer Nick Christo (book and lyrics) and composer Johannes Luebbers then flash back to Nellie’s arrival in Paris in 1886 with her husband Charles and young son George, and the start of her singing lessons with the renowned vocal coach Madame Marchesi, who was to be a profoundly important influence.

Following Melba’s life and career from then to the 1902 concert, the musical explores her incredible, steadfast determination to become a singer despite the resistance of both her father and her husband; the disintegration of her marriage and the tug of war with her husband to gain custody of their son; her entry to Europe’s glittering social circles; her affair with the dashing Duke of Orleans, the exiled heir to the French throne; and her ascendency to stardom on the opera stage.

The story is punctuated with extracts from operatic arias associated with Melba, among them A, fors ’e lui and Sempre libera from Verdi’s La Traviata, Porgi amor from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Caro nome from Verdi’s Rigoletto, the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor, Vissi d’arte from Puccini’s Tosca, and Je veux vivre from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet.

Christo and Luebbers have worked on Melba for eight years. The show had a workshop at WAAPA (where they met as students) and was then developed through the New Musicals Australia programme at the Hayes. Apparently, they hadn’t planned to include the opera arias initially, but it proves to have been an astute move. Given a sparkling performance by coloratura soprano Emma Matthews, who is well known to Opera Australia audiences, the arias are the musical and emotional highlight of the show.

It’s a pretty brave composer who then writes a new musical theatre score to meld with such beloved arias, but Luebbers has pulled it off. His music is attractive and elegant with enough of a classical sound that the segue between his score and the arias is effectively done. His number for the young Nellie Here to Be the Best, which is used as a recurring motif through the show, is a real earworm and the rest of the score will doubtless repay repeat listening. Luebbers is well served by a five-strong ensemble of musicians led by the ever-reliable Michael Tyack as Musical Director.

To move between the two sound worlds, Christo and Luebbers have written the show for two Melbas. Matthews plays the diva in 1902 looking back over her life – essentially a singing role – while exciting young musical theatre performer Annie Aitken plays the younger Melba (born Helen Porter Mitchell in Richmond, Victoria).

Emma Matthews with Blake Erickson and Genevieve Lemon. Photograph © Clare Hawley

Christo has based his book on Ann Blainey’s biography I Am Melba (also known as Marvellous Melba). The show is structurally sound, Christo conveys information through convincing dialogue, and the story-telling is clear but it does tend to unfold at a similar pitch without keenly felt dramatic moments that surprise and reel you in. Therefore, we watch with interest but without being emotionally involved. And though we learn plenty about what happened to Melba, we still don’t get a huge insight into what made her tick.

Wayne Harrison directs on a set by Mark Thompson (who also designed the costumes) backed by a curtain with hundreds of roses on it, which is occasionally pulled back to reveal suggestions of other spaces – a clever device in the tiny space. The main area is taken up with a raised circular, illuminated stage on which various images are projected (newspaper headlines, posters and the like). Surrounded by an assortment of vintage chairs and a chaise longue, the central dais looks at odds visually with the curtain and chairs and proves to be somewhat restrictive when it comes to moving people around.

At the heart of the musical, Matthews and Aitken are both sensational. What’s more, there is more than a passing resemblance between them, as well as a similar warmth and vitality so it’s not much of a stretch of the imagination to accept them as the same character at different ages. It’s a real thrill to hear Matthews sing in such an intimate setting even though, like the rest of the singers, she is amplified. However, the sound balance is very sensitive and you quickly get used to it. Matthews was trained in the Marchesi Method herself (her teacher’s teacher’s teacher’s teacher was Melba).  Performing some of Melba’s cadenzas and trills, and some of her own, she is just gorgeous and worth the price of a ticket alone.

Aitken, who has the lion’s share of the acting as Melba, animates all the scenes she’s in. She also has a stunning voice. Although she comes from the world of musical theatre, she has a lovely, pure soprano with thrilling top notes. To date, Aitken has been in the ensemble of musicals such as Anything Goes and The Sound of Music, but her performance in Melba announces a major talent.

Caitlin Berry finds plenty of personality in her portrayal of the well-connected, wealthy Glady de Grey, a live-wire who loved opera and proved a generous friend to Melba. Genevieve Lemon makes merry with the role of the formidable Madame Marchesi, though her comical French accent pushes the character towards caricature at times. The rest of the characters are broadly drawn and performed by an ensemble (Blake Erickson, Michael Beckley, Andrew Cutcliffe, Samuel Skuthorp and Adam Rennie) that is generally stronger vocally than dramatically, though all give committed performances.

A new Australian musical is always a massive undertaking. Melba could sharpen the way it tells its story but there is already much to recommend it and, with Matthews and Aitken at the helm, a great deal to enjoy.

Melba plays at the Hayes Theatre, Sydney until September 9