Written by: Michael Quinn
Melba Recordings takes more than just its name from Australia’s first operatic superstar. It also shares a birthplace and an attitude that has become its guiding ambition. Launched in Melbourne in February 2000 to champion the cause of Australia’s finest classical music performers, conductors and orchestras at home and abroad, the label might just as well have adopted Dame Nellie Melba’s oft-quoted motto, “It’s got to be perfection”, as its own, given founder and managing director Maria Vandamme’s determination from the very beginning to create “a Rolls-Royce label that was unstinting in its quality.”
Melba, says Vandamme, was an obvious inspiration for a label that would need inexhaustible energy, unwavering ambition and sheer, unstinting stamina if it was to establish itself from its Golden State base on the world stage. “Melba was a fabulous, larger than life character with an unflinching determination to achieve what she believed was the right thing to do. She had remarkable fearlessness, single-mindedness, rigour and courage”. And, Vandamme adds, “she had great pride in the maturity of Australia’s culture. Melba Recordings shares her belief in Australian musicians. In a new century they – we – need a platform that will raise the profile of Australia and its artists abroad as never before.”
Just six years later, and with a fast-growing catalogue that stretches from rare Massenet to essential Bach and from a dazzling debut on disc by the young Australian pianist David Tong to an affectionate tribute to the country’s most fondly-remembered baritone, Peter Dawson, Melba Recordings is about to take the most significant step in its short but successful life with the release of the first opera in Richard Wagner’s mighty “Der Ring des Nibelungen”. It is the most eagerly anticipated – and arguably the most important – recording ever to have been made by an Australian label. “Die Walküre” will be a recording of firsts, not least being the first instalment of Australia’s first-ever recording of the complete Ring Cycle; and the first Wagner opera from anywhere in the world to be recorded in the experience-enhancing multi-channel Super-Audio surround sound format.
A determinedly hi-fi-oriented label from the start, laying as much emphasis on the quality of the recording as of the performance, for Melba, capturing the acclaimed State Opera of South Australia production on disc in any format other than the most up-to-date and immediate (if also the most technically difficult and costly) was never going to be an issue.
‘The Ring’ has always been a yardstick by which we measure ambition and achievement in performance. From the early electrical days through to more recent innovations of vinyl, tape, stereo and digital recording technology, ‘The Ring’ has played a crucial part in how we measure the success of each format. Now we have the next stage: the Super Audio Compact Disc. “SACD is what its name implies,” says Vandamme, “a superior version of the compact disc – a technology now 20 years old! Because it uses a sampling frequency which is 65 times that of a conventional CD, the sound it captures and recreates is more accurate, detailed and warm. Put that together with the opportunity to listen in multi-channel surround sound and the listener has the exciting sensation of being in the theatre on the night of performance!”
If that kind of conviction is what continues to drive and define Melba, what brought the label into being in the first instance was something closer to frustration. An experienced and much admired music and documentary producer and presenter for ABC, Australia’s national television and radio broadcaster, Vandamme has long been an ardent and articulate advocate of Australian musicians, vociferously championing them and their work wherever she finds herself, at home and abroad. But by the turn of the Millennium, she had grown increasingly perplexed by the absence of an Australian label that could operate as both springboard and showcase for home-grown talent on the global stage. “I was working at the Salzburg Festival at the time, recording the finest musicians and singers in the world, and I remember spending hours in the record shops there and not being able to find even ONE record from Australia. It was more than apparent that there was a need for a label that forged a new model, a new identity for a new century and a decidedly different marketplace.”
Chance played a part, too. Just as Vandamme was leaving ABC after two distinguished decades, she was approached to make a film about Massenet. Vandamme had never made a film and was much more interested in making records, and said so. “And I was told”, she recalls, ‘Well, if you make a film, you’ll be able to make a record’. And that’s exactly how Melba Recordings started.” Vandamme made the film, “Massenet: His Life and Music”, with director Scott Murray and conductor Richard Bonynge narrating, and screened it to substantial acclaim, establishing in the process, said one admiring critic, “a standard for the future of music documentaries.”
But in the absence of a second film from Vandamme, television’s loss has been the recording industry’s gain. In 2000 the first of Melba’s own CDs was released. Returning to Massenet, it reunited Vandamme with Richard Bonynge for a programme of sacred and profane arias that set out Melba’s stall in no uncertain terms. “A dazzling artistic triumph”, applauded one reviewer, and “not a record to miss”, said another, while a third echoed the sentiments of many others by declaring the disc to be “worthy of its Melba label”. Other discs quickly followed: a ravishing collection of songs by Richard Strauss, an ear-opening compendium of British opera arias, a passion-drenched Puccini survey, and an impeccable account of Bach’s virtuoso Leipzig Chorales among them. And central to each and every one was Australian talent, the veteran Bonynge sharing the limelight now with sopranos Rosamund Illing, Deborah Riedel and Cheryl Barker, tenor Steve Davislim, organist John O’Donnell and many others. “Maria has the most fantastic set of ears”, says Bonynge approvingly. “I mean she’s a great musician and she wants quality, quality, quality. And I think she’s delivering that.”
But Vandamme and Melba had a larger vision, one that would announce the label and Australian musicians and performers to the widest possible audience. In 2004 Vandamme placed herself at the very heart of the debate about arts funding in Australia. Having already secured the support of luminaries from both the arts and business firmaments, Vandamme went directly to central government in the shape of Prime Minister John Howard and Federal Treasurer Peter Costello rather than its grant-dispensing body, the Australia Council. It was a bold move and a controversial one, too, not least when news broke that the far-sighted Costello had guaranteed Vandamme Aus$5 million, an unheard of amount for an established Australian arts organisation let alone one so young, to help her realise her vision of an Australian label for the global marketplace.
Her argument was a simple one: “A belief that Melba Recordings could make Australia as much a by-word for excellence in music as it is at present for excellence in sport. We needed investors who believed in the social importance of what we were doing,” she adds. “The money aside, it just keeps coming back to the fact that it needs to be done; there is a cultural imperative and a moral responsibility.” The funding enabled Vandamme to think on a scale otherwise unimaginable. Initially the government windfall had been intended to allow Melba to make some 35 new recordings over a five-year period. But when the State Opera of South Australia premiered the first-ever Australian production of ‘The Ring’ in Adelaide in late 2004 to ecstatic acclaim from public and critics alike, Vandamme seized the opportunity it represented and set about one of the most demanding and defining projects any record company can ever undertake.
When ‘The Ring’ is completed, Vandamme and her Melba colleagues will have ushered into record shops around the world a production that was acclaimed as “an extraordinary triumph that will take its place most honourably in the international annals of Wagnerian production” in state-of-the art audiophile quality that will boast all the immediacy and impact of a Hollywood blockbuster and all the intimacy of a novel. “I recently stumbled on some wonderful words by Oscar Hammerstein, the father of the great Broadway composer, Vandamme volunteers: ‘Grand opera is the most elevating influence on society … it is more than music, it is more than drama, it is more than spectacle, it is more than a social function … it is the awakening of the soul to the sublime and the divine’. That’s quite a claim, but think how wonderful it would be even if only a part of that were true! Certainly, there’s no opera that manages to embody what Hammerstein was saying more completely than ‘The Ring Cycle’.”
Already the first part of Melba’s Ring, “Die Walküre”, Wagner’s deeply impassioned “debate between love and law, between spontaneity of feeling and social convention, between the heart and the head” (as Mike Ashman’s booklet note eloquently describes it), has been tempting parallels with another great ‘Ring Cycle’, one, indeed, around which the word ‘legend’ has accrued over the years: Georg Solti’s still musically vital, dramatically vibrant 1957 recording for Decca in a then groundbreaking stereo production. Half a century on, the Solti set has never been out of the catalogue and continues to outsell many other competitors. Like Solti before her, Vandamme intends Melba’s SACD ‘Ring’ to be a set for today, certainly, but also for tomorrow. “The world doesn’t need another version of ‘The Ring’”, she forthrightly declares. “I can see no earthly reason for another edition to be made in this already over-crowded market unless it is special. Every record Melba makes is guided by that principle, and with this recording you have one of the world’s greatest musical masterpieces created with a contemporary audience in mind and using a technology which sounds so much more real than straight stereo.”
As “Die Walküre” makes its way into the world, Vandamme has already mapped out the release schedule for the other three music-dramas in the cycle and for other new recording projects, too. In an age when audiences happily devote themselves to heroic stories told at epic length in the cinema – “The Lord of The Rings” trilogy seems positively minimalistic compared to the six episodes of the “Star Wars” saga – the moment may well have arrived for a Ring Cycle such as this, “One of the greatest triumphs of which,” said one approving commentator, “is its capacity to speak the language of its audience.”
And with the creation in 2002 of the charitable trust, The Melba Foundation, to promote Australian musical talent to an international audience, it’s clear that Melba Recordings is here for the long term. For now, still in its own astonishing infancy, it is the vanguard of one of the most significant developments in classical music in recent years. “Records are forever” says Vandamme pointedly, “It’s the recordings that will still be listened to 30 years from now and more that Melba will continue to strive to make.”
That Melba Recordings looks set to satisfy and surpass its own testing ambition is testimony enough to the success of its first six years while also offering the most tantalising of prospects: a ‘Ring Cycle’ for and very much of the 21st Century. Namesake Dame Nellie Melba, who once declared: “My voice has been raised not only in song, but to make the big world outside, through me, understand something of the spirit of my beloved country”, would undoubtedly approve.