By Norman Lebrecht
23 May 2001 - Alberto
Vilar arrives late, with a runny eye, but sounding happy. "Best
opera I have ever seen," he says of the previous night's Queen
of Spades at Covent Garden, which he paid for. Next, he is off to
Glyndebourne to see Simon Rattle conduct Fidelio, which he
also underwrote. Then it's home to New York and the Met to tick his
choices for next season. Most people pay for seats at the opera.
Alberto Vilar pays for the operas.
He is, buck for buck, the
biggest benefactor in musical history. In four years, he has given
$225 million to opera, ballet and orchestras - and there is more to
come, much more, the planned gifts dropping into our conversation like
paragliders into a disaster zone. "I think everyone should give,"
says Vilar. "My goal is to keep this extraordinary part of my
culture alive. I cannot do everything myself. I can only hope to set a
standard so that other people will follow suit."
recent bequests include $50 million to the Kennedy Center in
Washington, $45 million to the Metropolitan Opera in New York, a $20
million commitment to the Kirov in St Petersburg, £18 million
pledged to Covent Garden, $14 million to Los Angeles Opera, $6.2
million to produce Doktor Faust and Les Troyens at
million to an arts centre in Beaver Creek, Colorado, $2 million
to La Scala's
Verdi Year, the unknown cost of a new Tannhauser at
Bayreuth, three artistic residencies in Berlin. "They
said I only give money to people I like," he grumbles. "You
want me to give to people I hate?"
the largesse comes with tags attached. Vilar, 60, likes to see his
name writ large. There is a Vilar Floral Hall at the Royal Opera
House, a Vilar Grand Tier at the Met; he has also argued that donors
should get bigger programme billing than composers. His high
visibility has raised concerns among guardians of operatic purity, who
fear that this bumptious outsider may be exerting a malign influence
on their art.
The editor of Opera fanzine has accused him of
tilting theatres away from radical productions. A Times columnist
attacked him for failing to rescue the Albanian opera house. The New
York Times griped that he gives only to a trusted managerial elite -
Joseph Volpe at the Met, Valery Gergiev at the Kirov, Placido Domingo
at Los Angeles, Michael Kaiser in London and Washington and Gerard
Mortier at Salzburg.
The facts of the matter are
worth investigating as a paradigm of the new philanthropy that is
starting to replace public funding in performing arts. Vilar's career
suggests that he does not spend money without strategic forethought.
Raised in Cuba and Puerto Rico, he worked in corporate finance until
1980, when he set up his own fund, Amerindo, to invest in new
technologies. First-peep involvements in the likes of Microsoft, Oracle,
AOL, Yahoo and eBay made him a 1990s billionaire. Amerindo today handles
$9 billion - including, in all probability, your pension fund and mine.
heavy sums can be stressful, and Vilar sought refuge in opera several
nights a week. Childless and unmarried, he began spreading his fortune
on the Met before branching out abroad.
happen to be a Cuban refugee," he says. "I landed in the
States and I didn't like it. I came to Europe as a student, and it was
one of those infatuations. London in the late 1960s and '70s had some of
the best music. So I have been coming to Covent Garden all my life.
Plus, I used to take tours from here to Russia and discovered the
quality of their art."
love of the Kirov became concrete on meeting Valery Gergiev in 1998.
Vilar gave huge amounts, including $2.5 million for Prokofiev's War and
Peace. But his condition was that the work had to be seen
internationally; the Met co-production cost him a further $2 million. He
also gave Gergiev a White
Nights Festival budget. "I'm going next month. There are
three new productions that are mine," he says.
October 1998, at a Savoy dinner given by the financier/conductor Gilbert
Kaplan, he sat next to Lady Rothschild, who urged him to help
cash-starved Covent Garden. "So I saw [the chairman] Colin
Southgate," recalls Vilar. "I don't want to say anything
against him, but it really didn't go any place. He had his views, I had
mine. What really made it happen was that Michael Kaiser got involved.
He understood that this had to be a relationship."
the former executive director at Covent Garden, offered him the unnamed
Floral Hall for £10 million. When the fund-raising campaign
finished £2 million short, Vilar quietly made up the deficit. He
added £6 million for a young artists' programme and will give as
much again to install seatback screens. When Kaiser fled ROH chaos for
the placid Kennedy Center, Vilar stood by his man.
died and went straight to heaven," he laughs. "He got on a
plane in London, got off at Washington and a week later he called a
press conference - here's $50 million. Nice to have." Vilar's gift
was tied partly to a Kirov residency and partly to Washington Opera, run
by Placido Domingo. Most of Vilar's operatic investments are
strategically interlinked. All of them hinge on his empathy with a
manager and their openness to his interests in new audiences, new
productions and new technology.
"There's one other man
that has got it coming," he reveals. Last year Vilar had been
discussing a $20 million plan for drawing younger audiences to Carnegie
Hall when the chief executive, Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, quit to join Simon
Rattle at the Berlin Philharmonic. "When Xaver left," says
Vilar, "I called up Isaac Stern [the Carnegie president] and said,
'I'm giving nothing. I can do it in Berlin.' "
endowment will be unveiled in the autumn, when Vilar, at the instigation
of the German government, undertakes a six-city tour lecturing on
European outlets for enlightened philanthropy.
If the Carnegie
switch underlines his personal commitments, his brush with San Francisco
Opera exposed his limitations. San Francisco was seeking a chief
executive. "The chairman of the board called me," says Vilar. "He
said, 'You pick your person.' I said, 'There are two, either of whom
would be fabulous for the house. If you pick them, you get me too.' "
Vilar nominated Sarah Billinghurst of the Met and Gerard Mortier of the
"So then they pick, my God, Pamela
Rosenberg," continues Vilar, referring to the former head of
Stuttgart Opera. "So San Francisco now gets $25,000 from me and Los
Angeles, with Placido, gets $14 million. There is no question that San
Francisco was in a better position [to be given the money]. But I was
just being honest."
Vilar is transparent about his
attempts to fix appointments; his version is confirmed without rancour
by Carnegie and San Francisco board members. The man, they say ruefully,
has a right to spend his money how he likes and we have the right to
refuse his advice.
The more serious charge, that he pushes
opera houses towards tame productions, is fiercely denied by Volpe,
Kaiser and other recipients. Vilar, they say, gets to see programme
plans before anyone else and backs the operas he likes. There is a
gentleman's understanding that he does not seek changes.
me tell you, it's an insult, not just to me, but to the people who
direct and conduct these houses," says Vilar. "If I went to
Michael (Kaiser) and said I want this and that, he'd say, 'Get outta
here'. There is not one documented case where I have intervened
artistically. I'm too professional for that."
is a very unusual lover of opera," says Gergiev. "He is a
quiet, modest voice. There are only five Albertos in a century. I say to
the people who criticise him: don't try to be too protective of opera -
all that money could go elsewhere."
Soberly dressed and
softly spoken, Vilar does not confine his generosity to art. He has put
$12 million into a New York hospital and $20 million into Columbia
University to attract foreign students. He reckons he can give away $50
million a year without feeling the pinch.
The earthly rewards
are his own front seats at the Met (A101-2) and Covent Garden (A8-9),
where opera-goers can come up and thank him. He likes that. He also
enjoys being asked to dine at Daniel Barenboim's home to discuss
Berlin's beleaguered opera house. He demands recognition as a key player
and is about to make a critical investment in GMN, the internet music
But the supreme satisfaction for Vilar is the joy
of giving. "Everyone should give," he repeats. "If you
only earn £30,000 a year, give £100 - it'll make you feel
The trouble is, not many plutocrats are following
him into the bottomless operatic pit. The oil heir Gordon Getty, he
snorts, "gives peanuts". Bill Gates, whose investment rating
he boosted, "is hopeless - I'm on the record as saying he is not a
nice competitor. The guy didn't give away one damn penny until he was
worth $80 billion."
Governments, says Vilar, cannot
afford to provide luxuries, and the European Union is demanding balanced
budgets, leading to cuts in the arts. Private wealth must fill the gap.
"Technology is going to be the dominant source of the growth of
wealth in the next 10 years. Most people in tech have never set foot in
an opera house. Are they going to give money? I'm working on it. You
gotta start some place. I'm making a start."
Music and Opera at Russia's White Nights Festival
here to read feedback about this interview and Alberto Vilar's
donations to the arts.
Lebrecht is a columnist for London's Daily Telegraph and the author of
several books on culture. His most recent book, Covent Garden, The
Untold Story: Dispatches From The English Cultural War, 1945-2000, was
published by Simon & Schuster.