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.

Interview with Maria Vandamme - Bloomberg (US)

Tuesday, 25 July 2006 - 12:00am

"For every hundred begging letters you write, maybe you get one response,'' sighs Maria Vandamme, founder and artistic director of the Australian classical label Melba Recordings.
While she looks exhausted just talking about it, it seems to have been worth the effort ...

I meet Vandamme in a cool basement restaurant on a sweltering summer's day in London. She's on a whistle-stop tour of Europe to promote her latest project, the first ever Super Audio CD (SACD) of Wagner's Ring cycle. (SACD contains more digital information than an ordinary CD, and can be used for surround sound.) The first instalment, Die Walküre, was released a few weeks ago and has got some excited reviews.
Vandamme ... is one of Australia's most powerful record producers. She trained as a pianist, then worked for 20 years at Australian Broadcasting Corp. She also had a short spell at the Salzburg Festival. She set up her own label in 1999 to promote Australian artists. Four years later, she started the Melba Foundation, a not-for-profit organization to fund the label. In May 2004, the Australian government gave her a grant of AUD$5 million to be spread over 5 years.

Warwick Thompson: What's your secret? ...
Maria Vandamme: The secret key was the cultural imperative ... So many people aren't aware of our great Australian orchestras and musicians. Our image abroad is of a barbecue-having, beach-loving, football-mad nation, and it's such an unbalanced view. We really have to promote our great cultural life too. What better way than with a Rolls-Royce international recording label? That's what swayed the government. They gave me the money just to see what I could do with it, really.

Thompson: Did you have any help?

Vandamme: Yes, of course. When I first set up the label, I got a lot of support from people like Joan Sutherland, the conductor Richard Bonynge and Barry Humphries. Several well-known painters gave me works, and I auctioned them for AUD$240,000. But when I wanted to make more ambitious recordings, the chairman of Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. Charles Goode said to me that there was no business case for it. The figures didn't add up. I would have to go to government to get the money. So I did.

Thompson: Was that right? Did you agree the figures didn't add up?

Vandamme: Quality always comes at a price. I wanted to strive for absolute excellence. And if you do that, you find it's a hard road.

Thompson: How did you decide how much to ask for?

Vandamme: I did my sums, and I realized that asking for too little would be a mistake. That was a sure road to failure. I thought that making 35 high-quality records would make us a highly visible presence in the market. I didn't know then that the first 14 of them would all be Wagner's Ring.
Thompson: Really? So the Ring wasn't part of the plan?
Vandamme: No, it was purely serendipitous. The State Opera of South Australia had planned a AUD$15.3 million Ring with Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde, but no one was going to record it. So they asked me. First of all I said that there was no way I could blow AUD$2 million on just one recording. But then I realized that if I didn't do it, no one else would. And my board was supportive, so we went ahead. The production got spectacular reviews, and now we've produced the world's first SACD Ring from it.

Thompson: Were there many technical problems?

Vandamme: There was lots of water and fire in the production of Die Walküre, and we had to edit out all that background noise digitally. That was tough. And we had to hide all 64 microphones, because the director didn't want any of them to be seen. In the end, we recorded 58 hours of music, and chose the best moments to splice into one live recording.
Thompson: The big labels are floundering, but the independents seem to be flourishing. Why is that?
Vandamme: We're the ones who do it for passion. I firmly believe that as long as there are people who dedicate their lives to making music, they need to be recorded.
Warwick Thompson