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Like Dame Nellie, the Melba label is soaring, with new projects in the pipeline. 1st March, 2007

Wednesday, 28 February 2007 - 11:00pm

Nothing, it seems, can stop Maria Vandamme. She started the classical record label, Melba, in 2000 and two years ago controversially persuaded the Federal Government to provide $1 million a year for five years.

Financially secure, she looked around for a project that would attract international attention and settled on a live recording of Wagner’s epic Ring Cycle performed in Adelaide. The first recording, Die Walküre, was released in Super Audio in June and the superlatives from critics around the world have barely stopped; all but one of 62 reviews [and editorials] have been glowing.

Michael Quinn, a former editor of Britain’s Gramophone magazine, says: “It is arguably the most significant record ever to come out of Australia and one of the most important yardsticks for the health of the industry.”

It seems everything is fitting in with Vandamme’s grand plan. Yesterday, she announced that the second Ring release, Das Rheingold, is now in the shops and outlined the projects she is planning for the year ahead.

“I want to record the beacons in music, whether that’s The Ring or Simone Young, and support them in the catalogue with younger musicians,” she says.

In August, she went to Germany where Young is the director of the Hamburg Opera and recorded her over four days accompanying the Australian tenor, Steve Davislim, on piano.

This is a follow-up to Young’s first recording, when she conducted Orchestra Victoria supporting Davislim singing a selection of Richard Strauss songs for Melba that is still listed in the Gramophone book of the best available recordings. The new disc is the first with her as accompanist ...

“... New recordings are not necessarily needed in the market but they leave a great legacy for our performers and they can use them to promote their careers overseas,” Vandamme says.
The big project for next year is a recording of Hélène, a nearly forgotten opera by Camille Saint-Saëns, which he wrote especially for the label’s namesake, Dame Nellie Melba. “It was written and performed in 1904 and has been rarely heard of since,” Vandamme says. “I discovered it on a dusty shelf at the Monte Carlo Opera when I went there researching Nellie’s life in 1998.” “It’s a costly project, demanding four singers and a chorus. Vandamme describes it as romantic music, with echoes of Wagner and Faure.”
She has also recorded a work commissioned by Barry Humphries from the Paris composer, Jean-Michel Damase. It was originally intended for the great Australian horn player, Barry Tuckwell, who conducts Orchestra Victoria supporting the Sydney Symphony’s principal horn, Ben Jacks. “Barry is a deeply cultured man and he is thrilled,” she says.

She also plans to record Suzanne Johnston singing Cole Porter, Tony Gould playing jazz piano and students at the Australian National Academy of Music.

Vandamme says the achievements of the past year more than justify the Federal Government’s decision to provide special funding for the label, even though it was a decision that came under fire at the time.

“This is providing a chance for a great Australian label brimming with personality,” she says. “There has been immense acclaim for The Ring recording – some have even declared it the most important since the Decca recording nearly 40 years ago.”

Yet she points out the Adelaide performances would have been lost to posterity without Melba.

But Vandamme knows that the quality of the recording is irrelevant unless it is brought to people’s attention. That is one reason she recorded The Ring in Super Audio – to make it stand out in the market.

The label is also benefiting from the cover designed provided by the internationally renowned Ken Cato, who is even coming up with new labels for the back catalogue. “There is no way we could have afforded Ken, but he has offered his services,” she says. It reflects the spirit of the label.

Robin Usher
The Age