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The Thing About Melba

Thursday, 1 May 2014 - 10:00pm

Peter Craven's article in the Melbourne Review.

Why does Australia have so much difficulty realising it’s onto a good thing when it comes to the arts? Why are we so willing to let excellence wither and die, or run the risk of doing so, when the people who are jeopardised have already shown what they can achieve and there are enough eminent people who know what they’re talking about to attest to those achievements?

Think of the Melba Foundation, the company which produces superb classical CDs which everyone in the world who knows about these things thinks are amongst the wonders to come out of Australia. Melba lost its funding under the last government and it’s not at all clear the minister Simon Crean knew what he was doing.  

The thing about Melba is that it needs direct funding from the Federal Government rather than go cap in hand to the Australia Council where it’s liable to suffer the envy of peer assessment. The difficulty here is that in the field of compact discs it happens to be peerless. 

Take their recording of Wagner’s Ring. The Ring is often a kind of gold standard when it comes to evaluating classical music and, yes, Opera Australia came of age when it produced its Melbourne Ring last year. But Australia’s production of classical music CDs came of age – it established its Uluru and its Opera House – with Melba’s triumphant recording of the Adelaide Ring from 2004 conducted by Asher Fisch and with one of the greatest of Australian sopranos, Lisa Gasteen, in the towering role of Brunnhilde.  Anyone who has seen Lisa Gasteen in one of her great Wagnerian roles (I remember the revelation of artistry, the sublimity of her Isolde for the AO which was repeated at Covent Gardens) knows that she had an incandescent authority in the Wagnerian repertoire.

She is now devoting most of her time to teaching because nothing is more punishing to the voice than to essay such Everests as Brunnhilde and Isolde. If you want a record of Gasteen’s Brunnhilde you need only turn to the Melba recording of this most epic of operas.

Nor is the Melba Ring a pale memento of a performance that was an immeasurably greater thing on stage. This is a Ring which has been explicitly praised by some of the world’s leading authorities on classical music recordings as having better sound quality than any other previous recording. To have that level of audio accuracy, that degree of transparency and detail, in the production on disc of a performance by one of the greatest Brunnhildes who happens to be Australia’s own should be a thing of joy to people who care about the culture of this nation – a thing of joy and a thing of pride.

Yet we can be such a nation of tall poppy cutters. If that habit can have its virtues when it comes to social pretension and political pomp and circumstance, it becomes wildly inappropriate and grotesquely misleading in the case of artistic enterprise and more particularly to a venture like Melba that’s so easily misrepresented as doubly elitist. Of course it is and that’s why we should rejoice in it as we rejoice in our swimmers, runners and footballers. “It’s a gift from god,” Cathy Freeman said as she sat on the ground after one of her Olympic triumphs. Well, Melba is a gift from God and the music that it succeeds in reproducing with a pinpoint accuracy and depth and richness that amazes the sophisticated people in the world is widely acknowledged as a blessed thing. Yes, classical music is elitist: you have to learn why this is one of truth’s great languages just like you have to learn to read Shakespeare or look at a great cathedral or a painting by Da Vinci or Picasso. And, yes, you have to have a healthy – vertigo risking – sense of world’s best practice of doing the impossible thing in little old Australia of making great recordings to understand what Melba is on about.

Look at Maria Vandamme, the woman who founded Melba, who nourishes Melba, who lives and breathes by maintaining it like a dragon. How easy it is for the nearest time-serving classical music worker, easy in a sinecure, doing a mediocre competent job,  to say that Maria Vandamme is a megalomaniac, that she just wants the power of money to produce her records.

Well, there is a phrase in Jefferson somewhere, “Panting for glory,” and we need people to pant for the glory of our higher art just as we take it for granted that they will in sport.

And look at the people who support Maria Vandamme in her efforts. Barry Jones is not a man who talked about the ideal of a clever country because he’s a halfwit. Gus Nossal did not establish his great foundation for Australian health because he wanted an easy life.

The late Dame Elizabeth Murdoch was the founding benefactor of Melba and the ambassadors for the organisation are pretty illustrious lot: Richard Bonynge, the man who turned Joan Sutherland to bel canto, Barry Humphries who caught the music as well as the cartoonery of the very idiom he speaks, Baz Luhrmann who could make Sydney, Australia into Gatsby’s prohibition palace of splendour and sorrow, Geoffrey Rush who has shown that a great actor, revered by the world, can make  his home in Australia, speak its accent, tower on its stage.

And that’s just the outlanders. Ask Vladimir Ashkenazy about Melba and you will hear nothing but praise or ask the man who is thought of as arguably the world’s greatest horn player Barry Tuckwell, a man who has recorded with Melba and he will tell you – on the basis of a lifetime’s experience – that Melba is the real thing.

There would be the strongest argument, if you were a minister for the arts or his high and mighty Rasputin, simply to sign a blank cheque to Melba on the strength of Barry Tuckwell’s backing.

In fact the support comes in from every different quarter. I’ve seen a brain as shrewd as Robert Richter QC or as learned as the musicologist Therese Radic or as sceptical and dispassionate as Terry Lane stand behind Melba as if they were at a prayer meeting.

What they stand for should command the deepest kind of respect in a democracy in which as the late Robert Hughes once said in relation to the arts was to make the world safe for elitism. For elitism read excellence, that rare thing

For God’s sake let’s support Melba and Maria Vandamme. They command the world’s respect because they make recordings of international standing and such money as they make will go in the cause of making world-class recordings of Australian artists

This is something like the dream Paul Keating had for his friend Geoffrey Tozer. But it does not have to be done by a British label like Chandos. It can be done here at home at Melba.