Melba Recordings

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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.

Ring Project Under Way

Saturday, 1 July 2006 - 12:00am

Two years ago Maria Vandamme received an interesting proposition. As head of Melba Recordings she was approached by the State Opera of South Australia to record the first Australian production of Der Ring des Nibelungen.

During her many years as a music producer at the ABC, Vandamme had followed with interest the various attempts at mounting the Ring in this country. In 1998, the State Opera imported a production of the cycle from the Châtelet in Paris to Adelaide. It earned considerable acclaim, leaving Vandamme disappointed the event was not recorded. Nonetheless, her initial reaction to the idea of recording the 2004 version was that it may be overly ambitious for a young company such as Melba, and that the cost would be prohibitive. But after sleepless nights pondering the consequences if she declined the opportunity, Vandamme conceded to “the cultural imperative.”

“I thought there are 24 Australian singers and $15.3 million spent on this and not to have it recorded would be a tragedy. It’s important for this country to document such an achievement. A mature nation does that. It has to support such a production. It was a great risk because you can be unlucky in a live production, things can go wrong. But sometimes when you do things for the right reasons they work out.”

Before the project could proceed, however, the matter of funding had to be addressed. In May of 2004, the Melba Foundation, sister organisation of the recording company, received a $5 million Federal Government grant to showcase Australian classical music internationally. But the money was not due until the following January, several weeks after the performances. By arrangement with the Australia Council, the grant was delivered early and a $1 million portion allocated to the Ring. Once the project commenced, Vandamme was undaunted by the “almighty effort” necessary to chronicle the entire cycle. “I’ve recorded many operas, and it’s basically four different operas.”

Nonetheless, the logistical demands of recording 16 hours of music were immense. Melba’s technicians attended rehearsals and tracked the singers moving around the stage to devise a microphone plan for the best possible coverage. As a result, 65 microphones were utilised. Just over half were stashed around the stage, invisible to the audience and unobtrusive to the performers. The remaining microphones were crammed into the pit, where the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra had swollen to 130 players by the requirements of Wagner’s score.

Another consideration for the sound engineers was how to avoid unwanted noise. Among the many challenges that arose, the technician wielding the shotgun microphone contrived to capture the crackling of Brünnhilde’s ring of fire without the hiss of its gas propellant; while at the start of Das Rheingold, the gushing water curtain had to defer to the singing of the Rhinemaidens.

Melba’s technical efforts may have been redundant if the show had failed artistically. But led by Israeli conductor Asher Fisch, with a cast including Lisa Gasteen as Brünnhilde, Stuart Skelton as Siegmund, and Deborah Riedel as Sieglinde, the performances earned international critical approval.

As a Wagner fan and spectator at half a dozen Ring cycles around the world, Vandamme agreed with the reviews. “You see some silly productions, but this one was wonderful. It had a freshness and vitality.”

The Adelaide cycle was also a popular success, with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reporting that the audience at the final performance “leapt to its feet and howled like a football crowd.” No matter how fine the performances, Vandamme realised that the abundance of Ring collections already available meant an Australian release must be distinctive to impress the international market. “Our technical approach was to do something sublime, something that had never been done before.” The result was the world’s first Ring recorded in the super audio format, an initiative sponsored by Melba Foundation director Douglas Mitchell.

Due to a sampling rate 64 times greater than conventional CDs, super audio discs offer vastly higher fidelity and the capacity for six-channel surround sound. Importantly, the discs issued by Melba are hybrids and therefore compatible with all CD players.

At the completion of recording came the painstaking editing process, with producers and engineers camped out for months in a small room in St Kilda, oblivious to the botanical gardens opposite and the beach just down the road. A particularly time-consuming task was the removal of any distracting production sounds unavoidably recorded. Noisy audiences were not a problem since the usual coughers and rustlers were apparently held in rapt attention by the staging and performances.

To maximise editing possibilities, dress rehearsals had been recorded along with the three performances of each opera. So when one of the singers suffered from a cold during the run of an opera, the editors turned to the dress rehearsal where her voice was at its best.

The mixing of the 64-channel audio involved balancing all the instruments of the orchestra, then placing the singers’ voices so they were always in the correct position in the sound spectrum.

Vandamme knew exactly the effect she and co-producer Ian Perry wanted to achieve. “What you try to do for an audience at home is to create the sense of excitement that you get in a theatre, so there’s a richness and energy in the sound.”

The 4-CD set of Die Walküre, perhaps the most popular Ring opera, is the first release in the series. Although available worldwide through the Melba Recordings website, its distribution to retail outlets overseas is crucial to international success. So far, distributors are lined up in [12 territories], with more territories to follow.

Das Rheingold is scheduled for release in October, followed next year by Siegfried, Götterdämmerung and, finally, a box set of the complete cycle.

There will be no rest for the company in-between Ring releases. Vandamme intends recording … Benjamin Britten’s Folksongs with [Simone] Young at the piano accompanying tenor Steve Davislim. She is also championing “an important project for Victoria,” the recording of Saint Saëns’ Hélène. The company’s namesake, Dame Nellie, performed the title role of Helen of Troy at the world première in Monte Carlo over a century ago.
Beyond next year, Vandamme has numerous plans. “There are so many fantastic musicians that want to be recorded. I could make a list of 100 records, easily. What about all our fabulous composers, such as Peggy Granville-Hicks? There’s a wealth of possibilities out there.

“It’s a challenging time for anyone to make records. When there isn’t a huge market you have to focus on why you’re doing it. It always comes down to two reasons. We must give our artists the finest possible representation internationally and we must document the careers of our wonderful Australian musicians for future generations.”
Vanessa Taylor