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Alberto Vilar: On Money and Opera

"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"

Subject: Alberto Vilar: On Money and Opera
To: editors@culturekiosque.com

Norman Lebrecht's article about the largesse of Alberto Vilar just about broke my heart.

And not because I'm impressed with the multiple millions Mr. Vilar has donated to arts organizations.

No, my heart aches for the innumerable struggling musicians, artists and dancers "out there" whose art would be immeasurably improved with even 1/1000th of Mr. Vilar's reported $250,000,000 donations over the past four years.

And I become positively heartsick at the boast that there is "more to come, much more…" when I think of the infinitely larger number of people who could be exposed to fine music than the select few who attend opera in the world's great houses.

I don't have $250,000,000 nor am I likely to ever amass even 1/100th of that amount in the years I have yet to live. But, in my way, I try to help.

For years, I helped a university piano instructor with her promotional activities. I wrote letters and talked long and hard to small-town arts organizers in an often unsuccessful attempt to get them to increase their payments for a 90 minute recital from $150 to $300.

I cajoled the local public television station into broadcasting the pianist's performance of a seldom-heard (and first US performance) concerto from her native China.

I also, on at least one occasion, contributed money to a local arts organization to make up the difference between their budget and the pianist's modest $500 recital fee.

I twisted the arms of friends in the graphic arts and printing business to donate their time and materials to produce quality promotional brochures.

And these days, in another city, I'm doing what I can to help a fine painter and a fine pianist with their efforts to make a living from their talent.

All that was and is done willingly and at no great sacrifice to me. The point is that I know, first hand, how difficult it is for some extraordinarily gifted musicians to make their way in these days when super novas command big bucks, great exposure and widespread groupie-like adoration at the expense of mere stars who must eke out a living teaching Czerny to reluctant 10 year olds.

Achieving Superstar status is a matter of extraordinary talent, timing and no small measure of luck. Without the proper celestial positioning of these three elements, it's not too hard to imagine that the fates could have cast a Brendel, Stern, Sills or Mehta to the backwaters of state or regional academia, talent intact - woefully short of timing and luck.

My experience is that there are countless numbers of wonderful musicans "out there" struggling because of the American propensity to flock to "stars" like moths drawn to a flame. But, as anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention to the output of Naxos knows, talent abounds in spite of elusive stardom.

I think Mr. Vilar's gifts and not unimportant legacy could be increased by a power of at least 100 if he were to decide to continue his contributions at their current level. In the next four years alone the grand total from this one man alone would approach half a billion dollars.

The math is simple: divide that half billion dollars by a $1,000 grant in aid -- that's 50 thousand artists and/or musicians whose lives would be enriched beyond measure.

Equally incalculable is the affect such gifts would have on an audience ill-served by the steadily diminishing numbers of classical music broadcasting stations, and a way too boring selection of recordings produced it seems with the "moth to the flame" theory solidly in minds of recording company accountants.

Think what those dollars might do to counteract the abject lack of education and/or exposure to art refined a bit beyond that which you hear from Friday night baton twirling marching bands.

A gift to a few thousand artists exponentially increases the number of folks in smaller towns and cities across the world for whom a visit to Bayreuth, London, Salzburg, Milan, St. Petersburg, New York and Beaver Creek is difficult - if not arduous (have you ever BEEN to Beaver Creek?).

I'll leave the theory of compounded interest to Mr. Vilar and other mathematicians, but there's no reason for him to parcel out his fortune one dollar - or one artist, either - at a time.

Assume 50 state arts organizations in the US. Divvy up the contributions amongst them and each would have an endowment of $1,000,000. Even at today's ridiculously low checking account interest rates that kind of gift would, in essence, be a gift in perpetuity.

Mr. Lebrecht's article confirms something I learned in my short tenure as a hospital development officer: folks give money for reasons quite different from those one might immediately suspect. The way I learned it, ego is one of the most common reasons to give. (Interestingly, spite toward family members ranked high on the list.).

I don't think one needs milk the analogy any more in Mr. Vilar's case. Clearly he wants, and obviously gets, his name "writ large" in a relatively few places. That's ego giving to my way of thinking.

I wouldn't want Mr. Vilar to give money to people he hates, but if it's not too presumptious of me, I'd like to suggest a way for him to make himself into a legend surpassing, even, the ongoing reputation of Andrew Carnegie whose many millions funded community libraries all across the United States a century or so ago.

Carnegie was born in Scotland in 1814; died 84 years later and spent his time on this earth amassing a fortune which must, given inflation and dollars-to-dollars comparisons, have dwarfed even that of Mr. Vilar.

Here's what a website sponsored by a Carnegie museum says:

"The empire he forged in the steel furnaces of Pittsburgh was sold in 1901 for $400 million and Andrew Carnegie retired from business life as the richest man in the world.

"However , this man of steel had a heart of gold for he believed that the rich were merely trustees of their wealth and should distribute it for the elevation and benefit of humanity. By the time of his death in 1919 he had given away over $350 million to provide free libraries, church organs, schools and colleges.

"On display are many of the treasures showered on Mr. Carnegie by grateful towns, cities and institutions throughout the world. Also featured are the Trusts and foundations which he established in Britain, Europe and America. They still serve humanity today by distributing over $150 every minute."


If the object of Mr. Vilar's considerable donations is ego-driven, more's the pity. There's nothing we can do save remember our mothers' bromide: Fools names and fools faces always appear in public places.

If, however, the object of Mr. Vilar's largesse is to make this a better, more beautiful, world, then he has it within his means to become an enduring, legendary, figure in America's (or anywhere else he chooses) cultural life. His name, his face, his memory would rank right up there with Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Carnegie.

Not bad company.

If he continues, however, on the egocentric spending spree he's been on, there'll be some good done, yes. But one of these days another billionaire will rise up and through gifts even more substantial than Mr. Vilar's erase his name not only from the walls, but from any sort of collective memory.

Art spread wide endures. Money? It comes and then, always and ultimately, goes.

Michael P. Scott
Chicago, Illinois

Date: 12 June 2001

Subject: In Defense of Alberto Vilar
To: editors@culturekiosque.com

While Mr. Michael P. Scott did raise some veritable points in his feedback, he'd have found that most of his iconoclast attitude was unwarranted had he known Alberto better, something I'm fortunate enough to do.

Mr. Vilar has a keen interest in developing talented but yet unknown artists - exactly the kind you're crusading for Mr. Scott. For starters, he underwrites Operalia, the international opera competition that has produced many a wonderful singer that I, along with the vast majority of professionals qualified in expert critique, enjoyed immensely. Furthermore, Operalia is the brainchild of Placido Domingo, one of the supernovae you mention that's also extremely interested in nurturing talented voices. So interested that the plans he's making with Alberto will have precisely the effect you're dreaming about. But I digress. Let's look first at what has been accomplished before we venture into that inscrutable landscape of unrealized plans.

In 1993 Inva Mula was still singing with the Paris Opera chorus. Placido, with his uncanny ability to recognize extraordinary talent anywhere and unbridled passion for developing it, invited her to participate in the then nascent competition. As expected, she came through with flying colors, but even then she wasn't left to make of this whatever she could. Once Domingo gets serious about a voice - especially if that voice has passed a competition so he has a whole panel of judges to corroborate his own judgement - he starts at once to use his vast, worldwide network to create opportunities for this voice to shine, including of course leading roles in the works that he conducts or performs in.

And shine do his voices. In the last La boheme at L.A. Opera, December 2000, Inva's Musetta was the embodiment of the paradox that is that character. She's a woman outwardly so narcissistically flamboyant that the more men that lustfully stare when she walks by the happier she is, yet inwardly so benevolent as to sell her jewelry to buy medicine for a dying Mimi. Rodolfo was another Operalia winner, Venezuelan tenor Aquiles Machado, who claimed a prize in 1997. Still another was 1996's Eric Owens, who got his deserved share of applause for Colline's "Vecchia zimarra, senti," and the same year's Malcolm MacKenzie as Schaunard.

It's quite a long list, the list of singers that with Alberto's money and Placido's abandon have been launched into the international opera firmament. Ana Maria Martinez, 1995 winner, will be returning to L.A. Opera to play Violetta in the upcoming La traviata under Domingo's baton. The delightful Isabel Bayrakdarian, the engineer-turned-soprano who went away with last Operalia's top prize, will make her San Francisco Opera debut in January 2002 as Valencienne in Lehar's Merry Widow under the baton of Erich Kunzel. The same role in the same operetta will be sung by Virginia Tola, who got last Operalia's Prize of the Public for her powerful voice, but at the L.A. Opera under the baton of John DeMain, Artistic Director of both Opera Pacific and Madison Opera.

Now here's another insight from personal experience. As you doubtlessly know, classical music is a very demanding art form, one that requires years of dedicated study and continuous practice, besides the prerequisite talent. Because of its preternatural difficulty, it is quite common to find artists who perform adequately, but those who genuinely excel by giving flawless, poignant interpretations are rare gems. And while the public is, generally speaking, blithely ignorant of the baptism by fire a performer has to go through to get to the vanguard of attention and sweep it off its feet in a standing ovation, it is very discerning in separating the wheat from the chaff. So even if you pump money, manager magic and rave write-ups into a "just adequate" singer - or any other classical performer for that matter - in an attempt to elevate him to stardom, the public will meteor him back to Earth.

Why? There is just too solid a frame of reference for people to use. The dedicated listener, the one who's ready and willing to pay for and go see a new performer, has heard countless Carmens and innumerable Beethoven's Fifths, both live and from humanity's almost endless memory of recordings. Unless what he hears is truly stellar, he'll stay away from the insipid performer next time, and usually forever. Why pay and commute when he can pop a CD into his player and have Itshak Perlman, James Levine or Maria Callas take him to the heights of musical ecstasy for a dollar's worth of electricity?

Therefore giving 50,000 budding artists $1000 each will definitely not enrich their life beyond measure as you claim. That sum will barely fund two concerts of the kind you mention, and then they'll be back to square one. A $500 concert cannot make a star out of a pianist, even if he plays like Chopin. Those who are really talented and determined - and it takes mountains of determination - have a manifold international competition to choose from. It's not prohibitively expensive; all of the good competitions have very modest entrance fees, some totally free like Operalia, and they all pay for the flights and accommodations of the contestants. All that's required of the participant is talent, and the aforementioned determination to practice until the native talent is polished enough to win over the judges. With a prize under your belt, you can proceed to seek the lucrative engagements that are essential if you want to make your living solely out of music. Mind you that I'm not saying that even then it will be smooth sailing; like all things in life, when the stakes are high, survival is for the fittest. Let all those you speak of with an extraordinary talent arm it with an indomitable will, and a way will unfold itself.

Diluting money in this way will thus be the most magnificent waste of 50 million dollars - not half a billion as your simple math suggests I might add. I know that when numbers get this high a zero can slip away unnoticed. The proper way to spend money on developing talent is exactly what is now being done by our duo of heroes. Alberto has pledged up to one million dollars each year for the next four years to the new L.A Opera training program that Placido will establish as the incubator of rare talent. Once a singer auditions and is accepted, there will be classes in vocal training, languages, drama, as well as master classes from star performers. In short, there will be everything a singer needs to polish innate ability and hone the various aspects that, in their sum, constitute a successful opera singer. Needless to say, an integral part of the program is giving the singers parts in company productions, each according to the power he can muster in voice and acting, up to and including leading roles. I believe this is more than what you are advocating regarding helping undiscovered artists.

Regarding the comparison you strike between Carnegie and Vilar, allow me to pose this question: when the name Carnegie is mentioned, what's the statistically number one association it evokes? Carnegie Hall. Not your neighborhood public library, not his steel mills, and not his millions. And as you probably know, Carnegie Hall was thus named because he put up 2 million dollars in funding, nine-tenths of its total cost. In the light of that, is it strange that Alberto should like his name on the walls of projects he finances? I mean, aside from the warm fuzzy feeling he - and each mentally healthy one of us - gets from giving, the only tangible he gets for his millions is his name up there. As food for thought, consider how low-keyed he seems beside Hollywood stars, who plus having their name in lights and recognition and adulation by the whole world, have the millions flowing the other way.

It's well known in psychology that once the basic necessities of food, shelter, sleep and sexual gratification have been met, what spurs a person forward is the craving to be appreciated. All of the world's great men and women passed a point where they felt that the world was ignoring them and their bold dreams. That's when they decided to face the insurmountable odds and show the world what they were capable of; to make it stop, take notice, and appreciate them. This is why Shakespeare wrote, Mozart composed and Carnegie amassed more money than he could use in several lifetimes.

Appreciation is why people like their name up there. In Alberto's case specifically what's been done is not nearly enough. There are tens of art companies worldwide that have had critically acclaimed successes, and yet they know nothing about him because his name is not seen as frequently as it should. These companies could benefit immeasurably from grants a small fraction of what he gives to the ubiquitous venues, if only they knew whom to approach. They are already making the world a more beautiful place, and with his eager help it can be even more beautiful; I personally know two such sanguine companies and have taken it upon myself to perform the necessary introductions.

The world needs to know Alberto, for the more it knows him, the lovelier it will get. Look closely and you'll discover that, contrary to what you think, he is indeed emulating Carnegie. And Carnegie was no fool, was he?

Adham Elham Mohareb
Award winning opera singer, internet entrepreneur and Mensa genius
Los Angeles, California

Date: 2 July 2001

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