When I was a little girl, travelling to the Yarra Valley on a family outing, my father pointed out a massive cypress hedge: “That’s where Dame Nellie Melba used to live,” he said. I had no idea who she was, but was intrigued: who was this important sounding lady, and what was behind that hedge? As the decades went by the fascination grew. I fell in love with opera, so a sense of Melba’s greatness put her all the more out of reach, while the diva’s former home remained hidden behind shrubbery that grew taller and denser.
Finally, in 2014, the public was able to see behind the cypress veil when a restaurant opened on the property, a former dairy that Melba bought in 1909 and named Coombe. Tours of the garden were soon offered too, and for a short period in 2016, small groups were guided through her home for the first time.
House tours recently returned, and will be available for a longer period – at least until July and possibly until September. Just how long the Glimpse of Melba experience is offered depends on the level of public interest and, one suspects, how willing the family are to have strangers nosing around. Coombe is, after all, still a family home owned by Dame Nellie’s great-grandson.
“It’s such a privilege to be able to enter a home that was built many years ago, and been maintained in the same condition,” says Diane Logg, whose many duties at Coombe include publicity and guiding tours. “It has all her beautiful treasured artefacts, so it’s a way of stepping back in time and really appreciating the era she lived in.”
Before entering Melba’s private world, the tour begins with some invaluable context that makes its subject more than just an opera star; this stonemason’s daughter from Richmond was also a suffragette, tireless WWI fundraiser and a canny businesswoman, who experienced great highs and lows in her family life.
“Even though she was living back in the late 1800s and early 1900s, she’s a role model for contemporary women, I believe, in the way she lived her life,” says Logg. “She excelled at everything she did, but she was a hard worker, she supported herself.”
The house includes nine bedrooms and seven bathrooms, but the tour is limited to the entrance foyer, dining room, music room and the diva’s boudoir. Nevertheless, A Glimpse of Melba offers a remarkable window onto the great soprano’s life and tastes. From Hans Heysen bush landscapes to fanciful Chinoiserie, restrained Neoclassical furniture to an opulent Rococo folding screen, beauty from across cultures and centuries is everywhere. Melba’s monogram also appears frequently, and there are dozens of framed, personalised photographs of her famous friends, from composers and actors to royalty.
Sadly there are also quite a few serious looking cracks in the walls, which will require very expensive structural repair. “The whole idea behind the tours is very much about supporting the home,” says Logg, adding that revenue from the restaurant and other recent Coombe developments are also invested back into this heritage property.
A taste of the restaurant, which is in Melba’s former garage, as well as the estate’s vineyard, are part of A Glimpse of Melba. Beginning with a glass of the elegant Coombe Farm Nellie Melba Blanc de Blanc, the post-tour high tea includes petite treats such as duck, fig and orange pastries, and Peach Melba Bakewell tarts. The shop and cellar door are nearby for more indulgent charitable donations, and garden tours will return September-May.
Logg says there’s a lot to like about Melba, who socialised with the elite but also invited swagmen in for a cuppa. Now that I’ve glimpsed her world behind the cypress hedge, I’m very much in agreement.
A Glimpse of Melba tours and high tea are currently being offered at 10am and 2pm Wednesday-Saturday for $125. More information at www.coombeyarravalley.com.au