LSM-ONLINE-LOGO2JPG.jpg (4855 bytes)

Back Issues
LSM Issues
LSV Issues
Throat Doctor
Concert Reviews
CD Critics
Books Reviews
PDF Files

About LSM
LSM News
Guest Book
Contact Us
Site Search
Web Search
The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Alberto Vilar - The benefactor and his bride

By Norman Lebrecht / August 14, 2002

I have got serious news for the opera world: Alberto Vilar is getting married. For those of you who read only cast-sheets and ignore the sponsor's name on top, Vilar is the guy who brought the good times back to grand opera.

In the past five years, the Cuban-born investment wizard has given away $250 million of his own money to the lyric arts. That includes $50 million to the Kennedy Center in Washington, $45 million to the Met in New York, £18 million ($25 million) to Covent Garden, $20 million to Valery Gergiev's Kirov company in St Petersburg, $10 million plus to Placido Domingo's Los Angeles Opera and sundry single-digit million gifts to Salzburg, Bayreuth, Glyndebourne and La Scala for productions that he fancied seeing. Vilar is, beyond contention, the biggest opera buff since King Ludwig of Bavaria, Wagner's patron.

In return, he demands to see his name up in very large letters on, for instance, the Vilar Floral Hall at Covent Garden. At the Vienna Opera, where he introduced seatback surtitles - "Vilar Titel" - he gets a full glossy page of gratitude in every programme.

The bequests are, he once said, his children. A long-time bachelor after a brief youthful marriage, Alberto Vilar, 61, made it his mission to give away the huge profits of his early-1980s stakes in Microsoft, AOL, e-bay and other new-tech start-ups. When the Nasdaq crashed, his private fortune was securely banked. Although his $9 billion company, Amerindo Investments, shed most of its value, Vilar had liquid capital and kept giving it away. And now he's getting married.

His fiancee, Karen Painter, is a smart cookie, an associate professor of musicology at Harvard and author of an evolving study of the symphonic roots of fascism. They met last summer in Salzburg at the bar of Sacher's hotel, where conductors drop by after a show to say thanks to Alberto. Karen, 37, was a recipient of one of his resident scholarships at the American Academy in Berlin. When, a month later, Vilar underwent major surgery, she came to visit. And she kept on coming while the music world speculated about late payments to major opera houses.

"What a lot of people haven't understood," he says with audible bitterness, "is that I came within a hair of losing my life. I had four structural problems with my back. In the middle of those operations, I had a perforated gall bladder. I had peritonitis. For 10 days it could have gone either way. My doctors told me to give up everything."

In a mist of pain, and with Amerindo under pressure, Vilar insists he never missed a cheque. At most, he "rescheduled" some gifts - persuading Salzburg to skip one year after three years of being paid ahead of schedule. So far as I have been able to verify, none of his pet projects went short while he was sick. But the malice and Schadenfreude that swirled around his state of health have left their mark. "It's not like I'm the World Bank," grumbles Vilar, "I don't have to give to countries I don't like."

He looks on the arts now with a warier eye and to his own happiness as a higher priority. He proposed to Karen at Bayreuth last month, once her divorce (from a Chicago lawyer) had come through. "I popped the question in the Second Act of Lohengrin," he laughs. "By then, she had seen the ring and didn't want to give it up." They will marry in New York on 12 October and the new Mrs Vilar will fly to Harvard twice a week to teach late-Romanticism.

Chirpy as he sounds, Vilar is still in recovery. "I can't pick up a handkerchief," he admits, "but I'm not in pain. I have my life back. In six months I'll be a normal guy who can sit four hours at the opera." Meanwhile, he is reviewing his cultural portfolio.

Bankably safe are his investments in companies headed by his best friends Gergiev and Domingo, and at the Royal Opera House where a change of chief has made no difference. "I'm very happy with the Vilar Young Artists programme," he declares, "and Tony Hall [the executive director] has been a stellar gentleman-to work with. I will go the extra mile for that house."

Less secure are New York and Berlin. Vilar last year switched a $25 million audience development scheme from Carnegie Hall to the Berlin Philharmonic. He has now put the Berlin plan "on hold" after being attacked for non-payment in the German press. Vilar insists he froze the gift because a corporate sponsor, Deutsche Bank, came up with the cash. He is also refusing to back a $400 million concert hall refit at Lincoln Center. "I don't see there's a need," he says bluntly.

When I talked to him in Salzburg last week he had just seen a "disappointing" Don Giovanni in a generally feeble festival. "That Turandot with the new Berio ending has got my name on it," he complains. "I've even had romantic arguments with Karen about it - she thinks Berio's the tops." Nevertheless, his pledge to Salzburg under Peter Ruzicka's dull management is unaffected. "I'm in for the long-term," he insists. "I'll assess it after three years." Despite persistent press sniping, there is no evidence that Vilar has ever interfered in artistic programming.

What influence the new Mrs Vilar will have on his purse is unknown, although his door will be open to her friends and mentors, notably the former LSO and Los Angeles boss, Ernest Fleischmann. The fear muttered only behind cupped hands is that the Vilars might start a family. That would surely take Alberto's mind off the opera.

Be that as it may, Vilar maintains that he has enough put by to fulfil all his commitments and fund at least four more, even if the Nasdaq fails to revive. He has always maintained that he put his name up in big letters to encourage others to match his generosity. So far, few have followed. He is convinced that history is on his side. "What's gonna change things," he predicts, "is that the EU won't allow governments to budget for deficit. They will have to cut costs - and that means they will have to educate more people like me to give private donations to the arts."

Editor's Note: Since this article was first published, Albert Vilar has gone through public recrimination over his late payment of pledged amounts to a number of arts organization. His wedding was announced postponed, and according private sources, the couple is no longer together.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001