Melba Recordings

"... a label of fragrant distinction"

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News from Melba Recordings

Go behind the scenes for insights on our recordings, our artists and our future plans. Follow our artists' schedules and share the excitement of their journeys.

Fanfare interview with Henry Fogel Part 1

Saturday, 1 May 2010 - 3:32pm

HF: Melba began in 2001 - just about at a time when people were predicting the death of the recording industry? What possessed you and your colleagues to start a new recording company at that time?

Reports of the death of the recording industry were (apparently) greatly exaggerated. The huge changes taking place then continue today. But that turmoil also threw up huge opportunities.

Because of an initial desire to make a recording of Massenet’s music with Richard Bonynge – I left my long time position as producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and set up Melba Recordings. I had raised funds for a CD and documentary film on Massenet’s life - and the success of that venture lead to more recordings.  For me it was a visceral decision, making quality recordings was just something that had to be done, especially in Australia and especially at that time. There is always room for excellence.  Australia needed a Rolls Royce label, and so many great musicians shared the dream!
HF: To take Australian musicians and music making in Australia to the world. What specifically is the mission of Melba? How will it differ from other recording companies?
Everyone knows about Australia’s beaches, lifestyle and sporting passions but that picture needed to be balanced. Most people know about the Sydney Opera House, it’s an iconic building of the 20th century,  but  very few actually knew what went on inside it!.

I spent a lot of time in Europe soaking up international festivals and was always surprised at how little was known about Australian musical culture. It was a case of what happened in Australia stayed in Australia. I knew that a record label of uncompromising quality could change that – given Australia’s distance and isolation from European and American centres recordings are an ideal way to shine a light on some of the terrific performances being given around Australia. Capturing the 2004 Ring performances from Adelaide was a case in point, if we hadn’t recorded it, it would have lived on only in the memories of the seven thousand odd people fortunate enough to hear a performance, and then it would have been lost forever.
 The flavour of a label derives initially from the artists we partner and the repertoire we pursue. Nellie Melba’s personal motto was “it has to be perfection”.  We are delivering to a crowded marketplace, and that makes us very conscious of the need to strive for the highest standards. It is exciting! Nellie Melba herself was an astonishing character, and we are developing a feature film on her relationship with Oscar Hammerstein ......

HF: In the nine years of Melba's operation, what have you learned, and how have you adjusted some of your original ideas because of what you learned?

One of the most important things that we have learned is that you have to work with musicians who are on the same wave-length, working towards the same goals. If not the difficulties are too great to overcome.

Recordings used to be a lucrative source of income for a select group of elite performers, now recordings have to be seen as a way of supporting a musical career, as a valuable promotional tool for the performer, complimenting an active performance schedule.
The world doesn’t need one more recording- the only reason for making a recording is the artistic one, it has to offer the listener something of high artistic merit.

HF: What is your own background -- how did you prepare for this position?

I began in music as a passionate pianist, then I worked a producer and spent a lot of time in Europe and the UK in recording studios. A highpoint was working as a producer at the Salzburg Festival, recording all the great performances there for Austrian Radio. Opera was a passion, and I went to as many of Carlos Kleiber’s performances and rehearsals as I could. I would say that my piano lessons and contact with Jascha Spivakosky and Georg Tintner, the wonderful conductor who lived for many years in Australia, were very strong influences in my life. I had the luxury of having a partner who was an orchestra musician, who offered insights into how orchestras worked. It all adds up!
HF: Your focus seems clearly on the voice -- starting of course with the company's namesake Nellie Melba - what will your balance between vocal and non vocal recordings be?

Melba Recordings certainly started out as a label focussed on the voice. This was natural, given my immersion in opera. The label has broadened; we have introduced a couple of solo instrumental streams, emerging performers and a virtuoso series. We also have a small but growing catalogue of solely orchestral recordings.

 I think the aesthetic we bring to the choice of performer and sort of performances we like to draw from our musicians have definite vocal influences, not just in a singing cantilena but the drama of the voice, its range of colour, of dynamics and of inflection. We are looking for distinct musical personalities.

Two conductors who have been influential for our company have been Richard Bonynge and Guillaume Tourniaire and both live and breathe opera. This is evident in their orchestral/instrumental performances, As an example, the first two movements of Tourniaire’s Mozart Clarinet concerto with Paul Dean are so operatic, like a Mozart overture followed by an aria.

HF: What can we expect in the future from Melba? Any undiscovered Australian operatic masterpieces?

We are always looking for interesting repertoire. For some time we have been looking at a number of Australian art songs and song-cycles. This is a practical way of combining our various goals, and testing the waters with Australian repertoire.
HF: I note that there has not been a strong emphasis on Australian music -- it seems more focused on Australian performers. But do you feel that Melba has a role in bringing to the world Australian music?
Indeed, Melba has focussed on performance in unusual repertoire. The national broadcaster in Australia dedicates considerable resources to recording works of Australian composers so it makes little sense to duplicate this activity.  We are instead focusing on other areas – it is better for all concerned to compliment the work of other companies.

Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge are patrons of Melba. Do they play an active role in the company?

Richard Bonynge’s faith in our company and his support have been of immeasurable help. Our association started well before we even set up the company; He was there conducting our very first recording, he narrated our first documentary on the life of Massenet and it was his archive and encyclopaedic knowledge that lent so much authority to our documentary.

Richard has a youthful passion for unusual repertoire; he brings so many diverse and unexpected treasures to the table, we could have fifty years of projects with him alone.
Dame Joan is a great Australian, the voice of the century and an enormous inspiration …

HF: If you were to look down the road say five and ten years from now, what do you think Melba will look like - and what do you think the record industry will look like?

Building the catalogue while maintaining control over quality is our immediate focus. The streams of our catalogue will continue to grow: opera, arias, song, ballet, instrumental solo, chamber- music and orchestral.

The search for engaging and unusual repertoire continues too, there are a few real gems in the pipeline, but I can’t let the cat out of the bag with those, frequently the lead in time with big projects is years. We are also looking at historical, archival recordings. There is a wealth of taped performances sitting on people’s shelves. The internet can serve to make those available.

 I would hope that in five years Melba’s customers will feel a sense of anticipation for the next Melba Recordings release, a release that can be perused and delivered from a web “shop” that generates the same excitement that trawling record shops for unusual vinyl did in my youth.

One thing that won’t change is the search for singular talents, musicians whose imagination and utterance touch your soul. Over the last 10 years this has been one of the sustaining experiences, contact with exceptional musical personalities.

As for what the recording industry looks like, I’ll just rub my crystal ball…I think that it’s pretty clear that before too long a high quality media centre- a computer of some sort will be providing the source audio, a relative of the computer in most recording studios now. But no matter what the means of delivery the quality of the recording is what matters!

I think that the divide between expediency of the ipod and itunes (for example) and hi-fidelity (SACD as an example) will continue to close. With improved download speed higher definition files will be de rigeur …and ipod users will all be deaf anyhow.

For classical music what needs to be offered is an internet “shop” that is better suited to classical music  - The search criteria that suits pop music so well on itunes for example doesn’t fit with classical music.

 Classical music needs to get its act together on the web. There is a big opening there.
The hope is that promotion is not in the hands of one company but an affiliation.