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The Lebrecht Weekly


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

Prisoner of the Opera

By Norman Lebrecht / June 1, 2005

The story is ending as bizarrely as it began. Eight years ago word began spreading of a benefactor was giving more money to opera than any man in history, something in the region of $225 million. No-one knew him from Adam. In New York he would occupy the same two seats at the Met (A101-2) several nights a week, in London the same seats at Covent Garden (A8-9).

Alberto Vilar, his name was, and he had made his pile investing in new technology in the early eighties, a time when most people would have thought Microsoft was a washing powder and Yahoo a playground game. Childless and unmarried, a Cuban refugee raised by his own bootstraps, all he wanted to do, he told me, was put his spare cash into the things he loved while he was fit and able to enjoy the benefits. ‘I think everyone should give,’ he said. ‘I can only hope to set a standard so that other people will follow suit.’

Last Thursday night, Vilar was arrested at Newark International Airport, returning from a conference in Las Vegas, and charged with defrauding an unnamed investor of five million dollars. Given that his personal wealth was recently posted as $950 million and his company, Amerindo Technology Fund, had $1.2 billion in assets as of last July’s audit, five million seemed small reason for pulling a busy man off a plane and clapping him in handcuffs. Vilar, 64, hotly denied the charges.

The judge,impressed by his apparent wealth, set bail at ten million dollars. Vilar’s lawyer admitted that he had less than $10,000 in the bank. Next morning, staff at Amerindo were met at the door by a US marshal, asked for their names and sent home. They saw computers being heaved out of the office in sealed plastic bags. As of this moment, Alberto Vilar is still in jail, accused of using one client’s money to fund an insatiable addition for operatic philanthropy.

Over the following days, New York's finest went badmouthing Vilar to their parish paper. Former Met chair Beverly Sills said he demanded too much attention. Donald Trump, that well-rounded individual, said : 'there was really something missing with this guy'.

Alberto Vilar learned  early on that money does not buy you operatic love. In the dotcom crash of 1998, his company lost almost 90 percent of its value and from 2000 on he froze all pledges. The Met took his name off the wall and made him unwelcome for a while.

Others took a longer view. Lorin Maazel went ahead with the Vilar-Maazel Conducting Competition out of his own pocket. Tony Hall at Covent Garden insisted that Vilar’s name should remain on the Floral Hall, even though he has not sent a cheque in five years (Hall will now await the trial outcome before reconsidering the Floral Hall). Professionals hired by Vilar on a consultancy basis are owed more than a year’s fees, but they sat tight and waited for the bounceback that he confidently promised.

It seemed about to come true. In 2003, Amerindo stocks rose 85 percent, but still no cheques came through. Vilar was having a hard time. He underwent four operations on his back and nearly died on the table. When he came round he fell in love with a bedside musicologist, Karen Painter, 37, and proposed to her at Bayreuth in the second act of Lohengrin, the date to be set as soon as she divorced her Chicago husband. Invitations went out for an October wedding in Vilar’s vast apartment on United Nations Plaza, only to be ‘suspended’ at a week’s notice. Karen went back to hubby and was last heard of having a baby. Amerindo has since gone down 24 and 17 percent in successive years. The cheques have dried up altogether.

There is no easy way to describe Alberto Vilar because whatever he has by way of personality is shrouded behind an occupational neutrality that yields not a glimpse of colour, whether in his tie, his eyes or his voice. He is studiously bland about everything – except the performance he saw last night which he will discuss in animated detail. I warmed to the man at first sight for the naivety of his operamania, and the sincerity of his giving.

He didn’t have to pay more than a few hundred grand to be assured of good seats wherever he went, and he didn’t have to stretch himself to fulfil the pledges he made when the market went bellyup. If there is even a scintilla of truth in the charge that Vilar used a client’s money to pay for opera, what we are witnessing is not so much an act of theft as the penultimate act in a tragedy that was motivated by the common good. When I once accused him of vanity for blazoning his name in big letters over opera houses, Vilar insisted he was only doing it pour encourager les autres: the rich won’t give, he said, unless they see dividends.

Valery Gergiev, whose Russian company suffered most when Vilar defaulted, has been the most philosophical of his partners. Gergiev had seen his own company and personal accounts vanish in a Russian bank scam; he picked himself up and started again next morning, and he expected Vilar to do the same.

Whatever the outcome of the charges against him, only a blinkered diva worshipper could deny the vast amount of good that Alberto Vilar has done. Setting aside his $45 million to the Met, which went mainly on braindead productions, and another $10 million or so to Placido Domingo enterprises, Vilar will go down in the records as the man who installed seatback surtitles in major opera houses, introduced young singers’ programmes all over the place and generally gave a hard-pressed art a chance to step back and take stock of itself.

His greatest benefice, and the least acclaimed, was his saving of Covent Garden. Until Vilar came along, Vivien Duffield’s £100 million appeal was £10 million short and the new Blair Government were refusing to let the Royal Opera House reopen unless it could show a clean sheet. Vilar covered the gap, then did more. Surtitles apart, his Young Artists Programme reminded the ROH of its duty to develop British talent and gave it the means todo so. Without Alberto, there would be no Covent Garden, no Kirov, no future.

Remember that as he sits in manacles, and remember this, too: he didn’t have to give a cent, let alone pledge quarter of a billion dollars. It was all done out of boyish enthusiasm and the urgings of a lonely heart.

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



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001