Twelve members of the Simonsen family were professional singers, among them Frances Alda, who became a star at New York’s Metropolitan Opera alongside Caruso and Toscanini. Arts historian Roger Neill traces their history in his new book The Simonsens of St Kilda, A Family of Singers. He explains how he became involved and gives us a taste of the family’s fascinating life.

Madame Frances Saville by Arthur von Ferraris, 1904.
A portrait of Madame Frances Saville by Arthur von Ferraris, 1904, Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne

In 2006, I gave some talks in Australia titled Melba vs Alda in which I played recordings by the two great divas, Nellie Melba and Frances Alda. At the end, I ran a straw poll: “Which of them do you prefer?” Alda...