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A Knight at the Opera

With his epic War and Peace opening next month at the Met, Alberto Vilar has become classical music's greatest booster since the Medicis. But is the billionaire piper also calling the tune?


Been There, Don That: Vilar (with Don Ottavio) in his UN Plaza living room.  

My only vice, Alberto Vilar confesses between sips from a Starbucks cup, "is hot coffee. I don't drink, and I don't smoke."

We are sitting in the sun-drenched living room of his vast East Side duplex. A Henry Moret hangs just over the shoulder of the 61-year-old billionaire, who once contemplated joining the priesthood. Yet it's neither the panoramic view nor the canvas that makes the room remarkable. It's the life-size statue of a young, violin-toting Mozart, his back turned defiantly to Donald Trump's 90-story Trump World Tower across the ether. And the imposing bronze of Don Ottavio, from Wolfgang Amadeus's Don Giovanni. And the miniature facsimiles of the Metropolitan Opera's Austrian crystal chandeliers glittering above the dining-room table. Oh, and the frescoes overhead, copies of the rococo paintings in Salzburg's famed Mozarteum concert hall.

Finally, there is the gaping hole in the hallway floor that soon will anchor a spiral staircase leading to the floor below, where Vilar is building a 70-seat auditorium for private performances of the musical arts he supports so lavishly -- to the tune of more than $225 million to date, including $45 million to the Met alone.

Though Vilar fought Trump unsuccessfully over the building of that view-sullying tower, the high-tech philanthropist and the real-estate mogul share a trait beyond their billions: the tendency, admired by some, abhorred by others, to have their name in high-profile places.

In New York, Vilar's moniker adorns the Vilar Grand Tier at the Metropolitan Opera and the Alberto Vilar Music Lodge on Shelter Island. In Colorado, there's the Vilar Center for the Arts in tony Beaver Creek and the Ford Amphitheater/Vilar Pavilion in tony Vail.

No Bohèmes Here: Vilar's opulent home includes a statue of the young Mozart.   

Then there are the countless programs that carry his name, from the Maazel/Vilar Conductors' Competition, inaugurated this season by the New York Philharmonic, and NYU's Alberto Vilar Global Fellows in the Performing Arts, to the Kennedy Center's Vilar Institute for Arts Management. And we haven't even gotten to the Continent yet. A one-man crusader on a mission to save Big Opera, Vilar has underwritten scores of productions around the world, more often than not joint projects that travel from company to company.

"He is the most passionate music lover you could imagine," says Franz Xaver Ohnesorg, intendant, or managing director, of the Berlin Philharmonic. "He's very generous, not only financially, but in his thinking about what an institution should do, because he wants to be the great model."

On Valentine's Day, Prokofiev's epic War and Peace, a co-production with the Kirov financed by Vilar, opens at the Met under the baton of his favorite conductor, Valery Gergiev, and staged by filmmaker Andrei Konchalovsky. The production has already won acclaim in St. Petersburg, London, and Milan.

"There are no anonymous gifts today," Vilar insists, though he's served as column fodder over the issue for years; one British critic called him "a very large chequebook with a 60-year-old Cuban-American attached." Vilar fumes at such characterizations. "What is the value of some journalist whacking me for making a gift that's going to benefit many people?" he asks. "I want to say, 'Now, wait a minute, let me get this straight. This guy alone gave this amount of money. This guy alone is influencing the survival of opera, and you are annoyed with the fact that his name is up there?' It doesn't make any sense."

Impatient, he adds that, like Andrew Carnegie, he courts the spotlight in order "to set an example for others, so that they might give, too." On the other hand, it also is true that no one will ever call Alberto Vilar the phantom of the opera.

Vilar wakes up at 5:15 each morning, usually skips breakfast, and truncates his lunch hour so he can put in a twelve-hour work day at Amerindo, the Park Avenue investment firm he co-founded in 1979, and still be free by curtain time. Early on, he and his partner, Gary Tanaka, sank all their investment expertise into companies at the forefront of digital technologies -- Microsoft, Cisco, and the like -- and made a lot of money fast. Today, his private world includes five homes, the use of a private jet, and a lot of tuxedos. But Vilar has been giving money away since well before he had millions to give.

"Even back in our poorer days, when we just started our operation," says Tanaka, who now works out of Amerindo's London office, "he was always interested in philanthropy."

Vaguely Jesuitical in appearance -- you can easily imagine a clerical collar around his neck -- Vilar seemed to come out of nowhere several years back, when his name started popping up everywhere. Three summers ago, he raised eyebrows in Austria, where, as the largest donor in the Salzburg Music Festival's 81-year history, he got a full-page color photo of himself in every program book. At the Met, his support has surpassed even that of Sybil Harrington, whose name adorns the main auditorium.

In return for his largesse, he doesn't think it's at all farfetched to take an onstage bow with the singers and conductor on the opening night of a production he's underwritten. "What makes me less important than Plácido Domingo?" he asks Johanna Fiedler in her just-published Met exposé, Molto Agitato. On opening night at the Vienna State Opera this year, Vilar was brought onstage, lauded, and applauded for installing his Vilar Titles in the house -- the same libretto-translating system found on the back seats of the Met (indeed, last year Vilar became majority shareholder in Figaro Systems, the Santa Fe company that developed the technology for the titles). He was given a medal. The minister of culture and his deputy were in attendance. Afterward, Vilar and the entourage walked to Town Hall square, where another celebration took place, with 5,000 present. Vilar made a short speech in German.

"I put this together to honor this man and what he is doing for this country," says Ioan Holender, the company's intendant; he insists Vilar had nothing to do with it. Nonetheless, Vilar is not reticent when he feels underappreciated. At the gala dinner for the new production of Ariadne auf Naxos in Salzburg last summer, he complained to me that the president of Austria had neglected to praise him on the opening day of the festival.

"He did not even say, 'We have the biggest donor of this place in our midst. We thank him. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone followed his example?' Didn't say a word," Vilar fumed, indignant. "That's a mistake. That is an absolute mistake." Vilar argued that the glaring oversight compromised the crucial role he has begun to play in European culture. As once-huge government subsidies for the arts, which have always put America to shame, dry up, American-style private philanthropy will assume a greater role in the deficit-reducing European Union. Vilar wants to be a modern-day Medici.

Last October, he toured several major German cities, giving arts administrators pep talks and how-to demonstrations on private philanthropy. Ohnesorg calls him the "avant-gardist philanthropist."

Although Cuban, Vilar was born in Newark. His father was a senior executive at one of the world's biggest sugar companies, and his parents traveled to New York regularly. Vilar admits that his birth here may have been planned by his father in order to attain U.S. citizenship for his son. He spent his first nine years in Cuba, then moved to Puerto Rico, where his father ran several Cuban-owned sugar plantations. At an early age, Alberto was cut off from his mother.

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