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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 4 December 2007

Noël Spinelli, Philanthropist Still Flying at 80

by Wah Keung Chan / December 17, 2007

It takes one hour into our meeting and some prompting before noted patron of the arts Noël Spinelli discloses that he was a star crooner in the 1950s. Back then, Spinelli dreamed of being an opera singer. Although that dream never materialized, music has and still plays a paramount part of Spinelli’s life, and today he is known as one of the prominent philanthropists in Montreal.

Spinelli credits his father for his charitable nature. Growing up during the Depression in Lachine as the sixth of 8 children, Spinelli remembers that although his family didn’t have much, they had a bit more than their neighbours. Since 1922, Spinelli’s father had been running a successful garage in Lachine and he often gave away his home-made wine and contributed to the church. Spinelli recalls, “he believed in helping out the less fortunate families in the neighbourhood.”

When he was young, Spinelli caught the opera bug from his uncle, who always listened to the Saturday Metropolitan Opera broadcasts. Spinelli soon studied music, including trumpet, bass and voice at the Conservatory. “I still have my graduation certificate signed by Wilfrid Pelletier, who founded the Conservatory,” laughed Spinelli. Studying voice, Spinelli learned all the Puccini and Verdi baritone arias. In 1949, Spinelli spent his savings on what became a monthly bus ride to New York to the Metropolitan Opera.

Meanwhile, Spinelli was making his living as a nightclub singer, and at his prime, he had quite a following. A failed marriage and the desire to spend time with his kids convinced Spinelli to give up that lifestyle, even though it paid much more than working for his father. When Spinelli and his brother showed that they were capable of running the family business, Spinelli’s father finally retired at age 70 in 1962. Two years later, the Spinelli garage started to sell cars made by Studebaker until the brand closed in 1966. Undeterred, Spinelli took the next year to evaluate the market before taking on Toyota in September 1967. “Our experience running a garage taught us the importance of customer service, and Toyota believed the customer came before the shareholders.” For Spinelli, employees are also important and Spinelli likes to say “who better to tell you which broom to buy than the janitor. And a lot of people forget their suppliers.” With his customer-first outlook, Spinelli would favour opening dealerships on weekends and sees that change as inevitable.

The 40-year Toyota-Spinelli relationship has been good for both parties. Throughout, Toyota engineers have frequented Lachine for customer feedback. From a garage with 8 employees, Team Spinelli has grown to 8 dealerships (adding other Japanese automakers such as Nissan and Honda) and 400 employees. “You grow by being better,” said Spinelli. “It just happens naturally; when the right opportunity occurs, you take it.”

While running his garage / dealership, music had taken a back seat. All that changed in 1972 when Spinelli read in the daily paper that Canadian baritone Robert Savoie was lamenting the need for opera in Montreal. Through a mutual friend, Spinelli met Savoie at a local diner and they became fast friends. The Concerts Lachine was born. The dynamic duo served for 20 years, Savoie as artistic director and Spinelli as president, bringing free concerts to Lachine residents while providing Quebec musicians with opportunities to perform.

Hearing Spinelli reminisce on their accomplishments, one can visualize the great experiences they had and the joy they gave. At their first opera gala, Spinelli got a phone call from two ladies asking how they should dress. When asked why this was so significant, Spinelli said, “It shows that people who were not ‘sophisticated’ were coming out, and that what inspires me.” On another occasion, the only time when Spinelli had doubts about his friend’s choice of repertoire, Savoie organized an all-Beethoven concert which was fraught with bad luck. Spinelli was ready to quit, but following the concert, when an elderly man thanked him for his first live experience at an orchestra concert, Spinelli found renewed energy. “Feedback like this give me wings.”

Following his father’s example, Spinelli officially retired from his day job at age 70, and has devoted all his time to his philanthropic causes. The Mayor of Lachine recommended him to the board of Places des Arts, and he has been involved on many other boards, including those of the MSO, Conseil des arts de Montreal, the National Arts Centre and the Opera de Montreal. Spinelli laments that Montreal is falling behind Toronto as a cultural capital, “We need the new MSO concert hall and we need the Opera de Montréal to thrive.” With all his experience, Spinelli is blunt about boards, “The role of the board is fundraising.” But he also advises artists to be financially responsible. Spinelli encourages others to give, even if it’s just their time. “It’s not so important how much you give. There are many small groups where $500 or $1000 makes a lot of difference.”

For the last 7 years, Spinelli’s pet project has been the restoration of the Casavant organ at the Saints-Anges church in Lachine where a full slate of concerts has already begun. An international organ competition is slated for 2008, and there are plans to webcast the concerts to senior’s homes. When the Saints-Anges parish celebrated their new organ last year, Spinelli was made an honourary Archangel.

To keep his work going, Spinelli will create a foundation where 50% of the funds will go to arts and culture. “I have always had a lot of satisfaction from music. I will always find solace and fun with music. It’s like water and air for me,” said Spinelli. “I want to share this passion and to see how it affects people.” Noël Spinelli turns 80 in December. n

Spinelli’s Most Precious Musical Moments

Turandot with Corelli

Otello with Tebaldi, Del Monaco and Tito Gobbi

La fille du regiment with Pavarotti and Sutherland

Eileen Farrell in Gluck’s Alceste

Cecilia Bartoli with MSO at Lanaudière

Pavarotti at Notre-Dame at Christmas

Tosca with Domingo and Behrens directed by Zeffirelli

One Regret

Never seeing Enzio Pinza live. He had a special voice with special colour.

(c) La Scena Musicale