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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Payback time for Vilar

By Norman Lebrecht / October 2, 2002

The card was cream-coloured, the lettering embossed and ceremonial. Its elegance made the content seem all the more unreal. The message stated: "The event scheduled for 12 October has been postponed. Alberto Vilar.

"The "event" was to have been New York's wedding of the season: a love-match between the billionaire arts benefactor and a freshly divorced Harvard musicologist, Karen Painter, 24 years his junior. Vilar, 61, had put the ring on Painter's finger this summer at Bayreuth and announced their betrothal at Salzburg.

Both black-tie festivals had received multi-million pound gifts from the Cuban-born technology investor who, in return, got the best seats in the house and a page to himself in the programme. "I'm in for the long-term," he told me confidently two months ago.

But all was not well with Alberto Vilar. Throughout the summer, reports trickled in that he was falling behind with payments. Los Angeles Opera was the first to crack, cancelling the Kirov's imported War and Peace, when Vilar's cash failed to arrive. Then the bumptious new chairman of Washington Opera took Vilar's name off its Young Artists' programme for the same reason. Both companies, it so happens, are under the artistic directorship of Vilar's close friend Placido Domingo.

In New York, the conductor Lorin Maazel stumped up his own money when Vilar's cash did not come through for the Vilar-Maazel conducting competition. In St Petersburg, Valery Gergiev's Kirov company is said to have gone two years without a Vilar cheque and to be verging on despair. Washington DC's Kennedy Center, headed by former Covent Garden boss Michael Kaiser, has quietly written Vilar's $50 million pledges out of its current budget.

Nerves are fraying at Covent Garden, where Vilar has, until now, been punctilious in making instalments of his £10 million donation. A cheque, due this month, is supposed to pay for the installation of surtitle screens on the backs of 622 seats. The screens are up but have not been activated.

"The situation," says a Royal Opera House spokesman tersely, "is that he is up-to-date, but we are getting close to the next payment date." Any delay could trigger legal action from the Californian owners of the surtitle patent, a company called Figaro Systems in which, confusingly, Vilar is a major shareholder.

Vilar's cultural life has atrophied in recent weeks. For the first time in a decade, he was absent from the season opening of the Metropolitan Opera, where he has endowed a gallery and much else. "It's got to the point where he can't show his face in the places he most wants to go," snipes one arts chief. "What I cannot stomach," says another, "is the man's unbelievable vanity, demanding to put his name on everything." The New York Times has wallowed in schadenfreude, reporting one failed payment after another.

Vilar broke his silence to tell a journalist that he was not being sufficiently honoured for his contributions, but friends say he is not returning their calls. They fret over his state of health after a year in which he underwent life-threatening surgery and the assets managed by his company, Amerindo Inc, fell below $1 billion. His whirlwind romance seemed out of character for this stalker of new-tech startups, one of the earliest investors in Microsoft, Amazon and E-bay. The suspension of his wedding has fuelled wild rumours about his emotional and fiscal equilibria. Vilar is currently the hottest topic of crush-bar speculation.

Amid the general deprecation, few care to recall that he is the biggest performing-arts donor in history - and that remains true even if (as now appears) he has paid only half the $230 million he pledged.

In a statement last weekend Vilar promised to resume payments as soon as the new-technology sector perked up, which he predicts will happen in mid-2003. "It is my intention to honour fully all my commitments. I have not cancelled a single one of my projects," he said. In a recent lecture in Canada he blamed "bad journalism" for discouraging arts philanthropy.

The precise state of his endowments is difficult to pin down. When I asked his office about the Kirov cash freeze, I got a stock reply: "Mr Vilar feels it is not appropriate to discuss the financing of an individual organisation." Valery Gergiev, Vilar's greatest beneficiary, has not returned my calls. Perhaps the most transparent of his involvements is with Covent Garden, where Vilar chipped in the last £10 million of a £100 million appeal towards the end of 1999.

Without his gift, the house could never have reopened. So far, I am given to understand, Vilar has paid up £3 million in agreed instalments, plus close to £1 million for its Young Artists' programme and an unspecified amount for the installation of surtitling. Vilar has praised the ROH effusively for its "gentlemanly" attitude - in contrast to some of the American recipients. It is reasonable to deduce from these facts that Vilar has lately spread his gifts over five to 10-year terms and that those with patience and tight lips will continue to benefit.

Lorin Maazel, who has reason for bad-mouthing Vilar after being landed with an extra $700,000 bill for their conducting contest, is one of those who has opted for discretion. Both publicly and privately, Maazel has voiced nothing but admiration for his defaulted co-sponsor. "In purely monetary terms," he told me, "the aggregate of his support ... is without precedent. Equally significant is the example he sets. If I have helped establish a charitable trust, I am only following Alberto's lead."

At the competition finals at Carnegie Hall this weekend (won by Xian Zhang from Beijing and Bundit Ungrangsee of Thailand) Maazel summoned a visibly frail Vilar onto the stage and lauded him to the heavens. "Lorin treated him like family," said a mutual friend.

The surprise of the night, though, was the lady at Vilar's side. "Karen was sitting right there next to him, just glowing," said a friend. "They are still engaged," confirms Vilar's spokesman, "a new date for the wedding has still to be arranged." All together now: ahhh ...

But this is not a story that is going to end happily ever after. Whatever befalls Vilar's health, fortune and personal contentment in the medium-term, his fall from grace has exposed the arts world at its most sordid - slavering at his feet when he had money to spend and kicking him remorselessly the moment he was down. The unattributable venom that has been spat at Vilar is inexcusable. He has done no wrong. The only men who are to blame are those heads of arts institutions who spent his money before it was in their hands.

All Vilar ever wanted to do, as he sees it, was to encourage private donations to the arts. He may have demanded excessive recognition and put noses out of joint, but the next would-be Maecenas will look closely at how the arts have treated Alberto Vilar and will promptly redirect his gifts to the nearest stray dogs' home.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001