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Classical Coup: When Only the Best Will Do

Thursday, 25 May 2006 - 12:00am

After two years of hard grind, Maria Vandamme is set to take Adelaide's Ring cycle to the world. But her critics have not gone away, writes Katrina Strickland.

Maria Vandamme was ecstatic when she was awarded $5 million in the May 2004 federal budget to promote Australian classical CDs internationally. An unprecedented coup, it came in a tight arts budget and accounted for half the Australia Council's increase that year.

But her celebrations turned sour as some in the music industry criticised the securing of such a generous five-year grant as outside the Australia Council's usual peer assessment processes.

Others came out in her favour, arguing that a blue-chip lobbying job - Primrose Potter and others met Federal Treasurer Peter Costello before the budget to push her case - should not count against her, but as evidence of her tenacity and drive.

It was a battering time that polarised Australia's small classical music recording world. It highlighted the rivalries that emerge when money is up for grabs in a sector that is declining worldwide and has not traditionally enjoyed government subsidies.

Two years on, Vandamme is about to be judged again. But this time it will be by the wider music world. It will not be about politics, but about the quality and saleability of her recording of the State Opera of South Australia's 2004 production of Wagner's Ring cycle.

Has Vandamme given the $15.3 million production a welcome life beyond the estimated 5500 who travelled to Adelaide to see it, and will it translate into sales of a magnitude justifying her handsome funding?

Or has she overcapitalised and thus replicated a quixotic initial investment which, while brave and acclaimed, sucked up $7 million in state and federal arts funding and nearly broke SOSA's bank?

Sitting in a cramped office in the Melbourne suburb of St Kilda, Vandamme looks nothing like a woman luxuriating in her government millions. She's been working like a dog for the past two years with a full-time staff of four to get this most ambitious recording project to market. It's eaten up $2 million of her $5 million grant, and was topped up by a substantial cash injection from her board member, Doug Mitchell, which allowed her to record in super audio surround sound.

Vandamme's Melba Recordings will release the first of the four Ring operas, Die Walküre, in Australia next month, as a four-CD pack priced at $120. In the following six weeks it will be released in 12 other countries, including the United States and France.

The other three operas in the cycle will be released individually over the next 18 months, with a box set featuring all 14 CDs - costing $450 - expected to be in shops in time for Christmas 2007.

Review copies are with classical music critics around the globe. Their assessments, likely to come through in the next few weeks, will help determine whether Vandamme fulfils her audacious goal - to make a disc that might have the reputation and longevity of Georg Solti's famed 1957 Decca recording, which still sells today.

Producing a top-end version of the Ring was always Vandamme's strategy. It was also a natural for the former ABC producer, who had a reputation over a 30-year career for making quality recordings (and for a passionate, confrontational style that, to put it nicely, rubs some people up the wrong way).

But beyond her personal taste, Vandamme reasoned that to sell internationally, a recording from Australia had to have an edge. Being the first Ring recorded in super audio surround sound - a technological advance that gives a more realistic sound and is popular among serious music buffs - is just that.

"The world doesn't need another record, or another version of the Ring," she says. "The only reason to make another record is to make it so that it stands the test of time."

When Vandamme won the government funding it was not with recording the Ring in mind. Less than six months out from the world premiere of SOSA's production, however, she realised that it would be a great cornerstone for the launch of her label abroad.

The various parties agreed, and the Australia Council brought her funding forward (it was due to start in January 2005) to make it happen.

Vandamme and British sound engineer Phil Rowlands installed 64 microphones through the theatre, then sat in a room backstage monitoring the sound. Along with Vandamme's partner, Ian Perry, they spent most of last year editing 58 hours worth of music down to 14 (they recorded the four operas in each of the dress rehearsals and all three cycles), selecting the best moments to merge into each single CD.

Editing out sounds of the fire and the water, and noises such as the throwing of a chair during a pivotal love scene, was no mean feat.

"The recording would not have worked had everyone not wanted it to," she says. "You put your faith in the expertise of everyone you're working with and your passion."

Vandamme's impeccable contacts will pay off again in the launch phase. Jeanne Pratt will host the US launch at her New York apartment; high commissioner in London, Richard Alston, a Melba Foundation board member, will host the British premiere; the Paris launch is at the Australian consulate; and the Melbourne launch will feature Elisabeth Murdoch, a Melba patron, and federal Arts Minister Rod Kemp.

But it is sales, in the end, that will determine the success or failure of the venture. Vandamme's US distributor, Peter Kermani of Albany Music Distributors, says the strategy of releasing one opera at a time is designed to maximise publicity opportunities and build interest slowly.

Four thousand copies of Die Walküre have been printed initially. Kermani says if the CD sells 1500 to 2000 copies in its first year in the US, and 4000 to 5000 units internationally, it will be doing well.The fact that it is the first super audio Ring should help, he says, with the Australian angle adding novelty value.

"If we sell 500 to 1000 units internationally it won't mean that it won't be a terrific success over a 10-year period," he says. "This is a project with long-term potential, just like the Solti Ring."

Vandamme's critics have not gone away and are questioning whether sales will justify the $2 million expenditure, whether putting so much into one project is the right move for a company that was funded to produce seven CDs a year, and if it was needed when the ABC was looking to record it anyway.

Vandamme sighs. She will not disclose sales figures for her other CDs, of which there are seven in the market and another four recorded and ready to be released this year. She says the Ring is the central point on which the rest of the Melba catalogue will be sold internationally.

"People want to see seven records in a shop, instead they got the world's greatest masterpiece recorded at the highest level," she says."That takes a bit longer."

A spokeswoman for the Australia Council says the project has come in on budget and that, with the music recorded for all 14 Ring CDs, Vandamme is ahead of her output targets.

Mitchell, a scientist turned entrepreneur, backs the project's creator.

"It's a rule of life that the good ideas are developed by small institutions with one or two people in them."

Katrina Strickland

The Australian Financial Review