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Neos Cosmos interview Maria Vandamme

Thursday, 5 February 2015 - 1:31pm
Maria Vandamme (Photo: Terry Lane)

Maria Vandamme aspires to push the Australian classical scene throughout the world.

5 Feb 2015


The Melba Foundation was established to help promote the Australian music scene internationally. Its CEO, Maria Vandamme, née Nikolithakis, founded the company in 2001 because of what she believed was an apparent lack of recognition in local artists.

Since then, the Melba Foundation has continued to receive government support to help build the Australian profile and emerging local talent.

Maria spoke to Neos Kosmos about her career, and starting with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), which inevitably led to this project and a push to evolve the Australian music landscape.

"I was a music producer at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for 20 years, and reported from Europe, where I was always alarmed that very few people knew anything about our classical music culture. Billions of dollars had been spent by successive governments to create our orchestras, opera companies, and music organisations, but they were virtually unknown away from our shores. That was the challenge - to give Australia a global presence."

And with classical music continuously progressing, Maria believes there is enough home-grown talent to make a mark on the world.

"We have to be less inward looking. We are producing great musicians and are duty bound to provide a service, promoting them to the world - there is more to Australia than sport, beaches and a great lifestyle. At the same time, classical music is being squeezed economically, just as print media is."

The sticking point, she says, is federal funding, which has gradually stagnated. With the onset of the global financial crisis and current fiscal conservatism, the industry is certainly feeling the squeeze, something Maria says it can ill afford to do.

"Without renewed government support, it will not be possible to continue. If we are to give our musicians support to leave a legacy of recordings made when they are at their peak, then we must have patronage, just as libraries, museums, orchestras, theatre and opera and ballet companies need government subsidy. Every music lover in the world has a mental image of the Sydney Opera House. Virtually none of them has any idea what goes on inside. Melba's mission is to take the world inside the greatest building of the twentieth century."

Throughout her career, Maria has been inspired by her hardworking migrant grandfather George Nikakis who, with her father dying when she was age three, took on a greater paternal role for her and her siblings. Despite a lack of education, his will for success and aspirations to put his children and grandchildren through private schooling is something she holds dearly.

"He was blessed with business acumen, and had a ferocious work ethic. His is the typical migrant story - he arrived with 20 cents, started by mopping floors, progressed to working as a sous chef, then started his own restaurant in Russell Street, The George, and owned the Centenary Hotel on Lonsdale Street. He brought us up to be proud of our Cretan heritage and equally proud of being Australian. He was a powerful and dignified man and worked tirelessly to make a contribution to the Greek community. I grew up with a strong sense of gratitude and obligation."

Her upbringing propelled her career, as she continues to try to emulate her grandfather's influence and success. Like many second and third generation migrants, Maria's first language was Greek, with her heritage also playing prominently throughout her journey.

"I did not speak a word of English until I went to kindergarten. Language affects how you think. I always identified as being Greek first and foremost, though it was a shock to arrive in Greece when I was 30 and be told that I was a xeni - my Australian accent was a giveaway. I think I inherited from my grandfather a passionate belief in the importance of hard work and being very ambitious - following your dream - striving to achieve what you believe to be important."
And she believes the Greek culture resonates heavily within the music industry.

"Greeks are an extreme people - passionate and strong willed. Their belief that it is essential to enjoy life and all its blessings flows through to the music I believe in. While Greece has a small population, we did produce three of the greatest and most exalted exponents in the arts: Maria Callas - La Divina - the incomparable soprano, Dimitri Mitropoulos, one of the most revered conductors, and Elia Kazan, a hugely influential movie and theatre director. All of whom embody the tempestuous, extreme, uncompromising and joyous Greek nature!

And despite Greece's current economic predicament, Maria hopes the country's musical qualities - along with Australia's - can continue to be taken to the world.