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How We Recorded 'The Ring'

Sunday, 11 November 2007 - 11:00pm

An interview with Maria Vandamme, Founder of Melba Recordings and producer of the SACD Recording of Wagner's Ring

Why did Melba record this Ring in Adelaide?

I have been recording operas for 20 years, and having worked with John Culshaw, and Sir Georg Solti and the Vienna Philharmonic – the chance of recording the Australian Ring was irresistible! The South Australia State Opera production of the Ring was a historical landmark, as never before had an Australian opera mounted such an ambitious project, and never before had the worldwide critics been so enthusiastic about an event taking place in this country.

Adelaide’s Ring was a triumph on every account. Records are forever – the Decca Ring is still available 40+ years after being released. So I decided to create a document of those historical performances which would stand the test oftime, and be a worthy record of the $15.3 Million spent on the production ... So we recorded it in super audio surround sound to give maximum pleasure to audiophiles who may have other Ring recordings but will not have had the opportunity to hear it is SACD. At the same time, the hybrid sound means that ordinary CD players can deliver stereo to those not yet owning SACD players.

How did you produce this recording?

We recorded three performances and the dress –and lovingly spliced together the absolute finest moments into one very strong performance now available to everyone.

Of course recording a LIVE opera is much harder than a studio recording when you can place everyone in the optimum position, and no one has anything to think about but the SINGING …with breaks to gather one’s breath when necessary – in a performance the conductor has a lot on his mind, as do singers, roasting under lights and wearing often uncomfortable costumes … for hours and hours! Brünnhilde sprained her ankle, and for a while we were not sure she was able to appear … it was touch and go!

What were the challenges of recording the Ring?

The difficulty in recording live opera, and especially the Ring, is not so much that one has to ‘capture’ the sound in the auditorium but rather one has to create something, in terms of orchestral and voice balance, that is better than reality.

The producer’s job is to convey the excitement and danger of the live performance. The aim is to keep the orchestral sound rich and detailed, whilst at the same time always allowing the voices to be heard – actually not always possible when listening to a concert performance. This is achieved by having as large a number of ‘covering’ microphones as possible focused on the stage to give the singers the freedom to act their roles. The mixing involves a subtle process of ‘chasing’ the voices around the stage and trying to lessen the effect of radically changing perspectives, whilst still trying to convey the sense of movement on stage.

My personal approach to sound is that I look first for ENERGY and SPACE – the venue is the starting point for a great recording – and if it is NOT available then you have to create the sound of your favourite hall – wooden shoe box is the ideal – hoorah for Wagner, without the aid of acoustic engineers, creating the glory which is the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Having heard a good number of Rings there, I knew what I wanted to hear …a halo of orchestral sound supporting the voices which are always audible and never drowned out – at the same time the orchestral colours are present and the detail is rich.

What are the technical issues related to an SACD production?

We released the recording in Super Audio surround sound to give maximum pleasure to hi-fi buffs who may have other Ring recordings but have not had the opportunity to hear it in SACD. At the same time the hybrid disc means that standard CD players can deliver stereo to those not yet owning six channel systems. All four recordings were captured on 64 tracks of digital audio each night utilizing the very latest in recording technology available, and were stored on dozens of hard discs. The sheer volume of data was astonishing and just managing all of this data, 58 hours worth of high definition 64 track recording, was a feat in itself.

The post production process involved not only creating a definitive performance within the constraints of a live production involving walls of water and fire effects onstage, but also creating two versions of ‘the mix’. One in stereo for SACD and CD and the other in 5.1 surround sound. SACD allow all three of these renditions to be made available on a single disc.

The recording is dedicated to the greatest living Australian – Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, who has devoted her life to giving to others and who was the Founding Benefactor of the Melba Foundation. At 97 she still has her finger on the pulse of every arts organization here and inspires everyone she meets.