Downton Abbey fever had gripped the rest of the world for some years, and now it is here as well. The British period drama television series depicts life in a fictional Yorkshire country estate with the aristocratic Grantham family and their household staff in the post-Edwardian era. It is one of the most widely watched television drama shows in the world, and a large part of its appeal lies in scriptwriter Julian Fellowes trying to be as authentic as possible to the unfolding timeline, the changing fashions and novel appliances and automobiles.
However the Downton team seem to have dropped the ball in Series Four, Episode Three. A chance meeting between Fellowes and the great New Zealand soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa at Glyndebourne Opera prompted him to write her into this episode, casting her in a cameo appearance as another great Dame from the 1920s, the Australian operatic lyric soprano Dame Nellie Melba (1861-1931). In this episode, Dame Melba is invited to entertain house guests at Downton Abbey. So far, so good. All very plausible.
But then we are asked to believe that head butler Carson snootily arranges for Dame Melba to be confined to her room with a cup of tea and a dinner tray, as she was deemed too ‘low’ to hobnob with the high-falootin’ family and their guests. Surely even in remote Yorkshire in 1922, one would still have expected an aristocratic family to have had sufficient access to news from the outside world to have known what a star Nellie Melba was. She was by then one of the world’s most famous singers. She had conquered the stage of every major opera house in the world, and their royalty and aristocracy were at her feet. She even had a dessert pudding named “Peach Melba” after her (there’s one for your cookbook, Mrs. Patmore!), invented by the French chef Auguste Escoffier at London’s Savoy Hotel in her honour. He went on to create Melba sauce, Melba toast, and Melba Garniture as well.
On the contrary, Dame Melba would perhaps never have agreed to such a private concert unless her hosts were really close to her, and the Granthams quite obviously weren’t.
In Downton, Te Kanawa’s Melba not only swallows the snub of not being invited to dinner before her concert with equanimity, but when Lady Grantham insists on Dame Melba joining the dinner party, the diva tries to impress her host Lord Grantham with her knowledge of claret, and her affinity to Haut Brion, and (shudder!) actually partakes of it, just before her concert. Any professional singer knew then and knows now that alcohol dries up the throat, and is best avoided several hours before a performance. Why did on-screen Melba/Te Kanawa not know this? It is rumoured that Dame Melba could drink quite heavily when “off-duty”, but she would never have done so just before a performance.
That said, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa apparently has a great interest in the career and oeuvre of Dame Melba and did a fair amount of research before taking on the part. In an interview to the British press, she said “I was trying to stay true to the character because as Julian Fellowes said ‘she’s the only true character’ that actually lived’.” She procured a log sheet of all the performances Dame Melba did, how many roles she played and how much she earned. In today’s money, her annual income would have been about £3 million. Which is why it stretches credulity to assume the diva would have allowed herself to be treated so shabbily by a provincial lord.
The research also influenced the choice of music depicted in the episode. Dvořák’s ‘Songs my mother taught me” was one of Dame Melba’s favourites, and it, along with ‘O mio babbino caro’ from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, is on the programme. The latter aria prompts the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) to quip approvingly “You can always rely on Puccini.”
Although Dame Melba’s early gramophone recordings for their technological shortcomings did not quite capture the vital overtones to her voice, depriving it for the body and warmth in real life, they are even today exemplars for an almost seamlessly pure lyric soprano voice with effortless coloratura, a smooth legato and phenomenally accurate intonation, “as reliable as a keyed instrument”. She is said to have had perfect pitch.
Not all her music contemporaries were enamoured, though. Gustav Mahler remarked that he’d prefer “a good clarinettist” to her after hearing her sing in La Traviata. Sir Thomas Beecham was even more unkind, famously describing her as “uninterestingly perfect, and perfectly uninteresting.”
Te Kanawa found herself in an uncharacteristic state of “nervous excitement” at the prospect of playing Dame Melba on screen, being unable to sleep the night prior to the shoot. She nevertheless reduced the television crew to tears (for all the right reasons) with her performance in front of the cameras.
Te Kanawa, in true diva style, insisted on having her Pomeranians come with her to Highclere Castle, where the Downton Abbey series is being filmed, overriding its owner Lady Carnarvon’s objections. One of the Pomeranians was pregnant at the time, and the new pup has been named Abbey after the series. A better choice than Pooch-ini, for sure.
(An edited version of this article was published on 22 March 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)