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A Knight at the Opera

"My mother was given her walking papers by my father, and that's all I ever knew," says Vilar, who apparently never thought to look her up again. Instead he and his two sisters were raised by their paternal grandmother, a lover of classical music with a crush on Mario Lanza.

>"She took me to see two movies he made," Vilar recalls, "and I said, 'Wow, what a voice!' " That was the beginning. A music nerd was born. But when he tried to share his enthusiasm by offering to play a recording of Beethoven's Emperor Concerto on record, his father angrily declined his son's invitation. The antagonism escalated: When Vilar expressed interest in playing the violin, his father cracked, "Cuban men do not play the violin." (It probably didn't help that Alberto also hated baseball.)

If the story begins to sound like a standard gay narrative, with the tyrannical macho father terrorizing the sensitive sissy son, Vilar insists that homophobia wasn't a part of it. "His principal fear was that I would not grow up to be a man," he says. "He thought I was headed for the priesthood." Vilar was raised as a good Catholic by his grandmother, while his father frequently burst into rabidly anti-Catholic diatribes. One day, seeing Vilar decked out as an altar boy, he barked, "I don't want to see you in that funny dress again!"

Was there really no suspicion of homosexuality? "Well, there was a doubt in his mind, because I was 263 percent shy with girls," admits Vilar, who married at 45 and divorced five and a half years later, and has no children. His womanizing father, on the other hand, "had more girlfriends than I have operas."

When the family lost everything to the Castro revolution, Vilar followed his father's advice and took a job at Citibank in New York, later earning a master's degree in economics at Iona College in New Rochelle. The money really started rolling in soon after he started his own company; he made his first million in 1981. He bought his father a nice home and a BMW, and sent him to Las Vegas four times a year. But the old antagonism never let up, Vilar recalls: When Dad got wind of his son's growing charitable donations, he'd growl, "You're gonna give who money? What about me?"

Vilar entertains a fantasy that he could have been a prodigy if it weren't for his father. To see him at the Met, you can't help but feel the passion that fuels his giving. He always sits in the first row, on the aisle, so he can see and feel every aspect of the spectacle with the expectant thrill his father could never squash.

"What you have is 100 well-trained musicians in the pit playing the world's greatest music," he says. "You've got a handful of the best singers in the world. You've got a well-trained chorus. You probably have a piece of great literature or drama turned into a libretto. You have theater; you have coordination. I think it's the highest art form. Then when you superimpose a Zeffirelli production -- with lighting, costume, and set design -- you die and go to heaven."

When political parties come seeking donations, Vilar says, "Only if you put music education in your platform." (That's when the calls generally stop.) He doesn't hang out with Wall Street types. "Ninety percent of my socializing is with either intensive people into music like myself, people who live for the music, or artists," he says. "Those are my friends. I don't have time beyond that."

And yet today he speaks kindly about his father, now dead, whom he nonetheless describes as a "misguided klutz with an extraordinarily misplaced bias." He has forgiven him. ("That's what Catholics are supposed to do!") Indeed, his father seems to be the only person from whom Alberto never demanded a thank you.

Whatever the critics make of his philanthropic style, it has endeared him to many of the world's top directors, conductors, and singers, not to mention the managers who must pay them.

"His generosity is far beyond anything that has preceded it," says diva Renée Fleming, a friend. "Those who were skeptical have been won over."

Actually, not quite all. In December 1999, when Vilar Floral Hall was unveiled at Covent Garden, and later, when it was announced that Vilar Titles would be installed there, the British press treated the billionaire as if he'd scrawled graffiti on a national monument. One journalist characterized him as a "one-man globalisation merchant" whose "tentacles stretch from St. Petersburg to Los Angeles by way of Salzburg, Glyndebourne and Washington, and wherever else opera is a ritzy, glamorous affair." Another acknowledged, grudgingly, that "the future of international opera and ballet now depends to a startling extent on Alberto Vilar."

That's not far from the truth: Vilar has become the biggest benefactor in the history of classical music. The Medici analogy is apt in at least one sense: The Renaissance patrons effected, through their pocketbook, the emergence of a new musico-dramatic form on the occasion of a wedding in 1600. When Maria de' Medici married Henri IV of France, Jacopo Peri's seminal Eurydice was performed. That piece inspired a guest at the party, Vincenzo Gonzaga, to copycat-commission a superior composer in his hometown of Mantua. The result was Claudio Monteverdi's groundbreaking La Favola d'Orfeo (The Legend of Orpheus). Opera was born -- and a hit.

Opera is now entering its fifth century, and Vilar is determined to keep it alive for another five. He has few other cultural interests (he hates movies) and -- unlike the Medicis -- isn't interested in expanding the repertory; he doesn't commission new work and has no soft spot for small, struggling companies. "Some people have criticized me for not doing that," he admits, "but I already said what I'm going to do: help the big guys set a standard."

Though Vilar's taste is conservative, he has his eccentricities; at the Met, he underwrote a quirky and monumental Doktor Faust, for example, and he's one of the few people who liked Robert Wilson's freakish yet transcendental Lohengrin.

At the same time, Vilar shares his riches with institutions that, while respected and well-established, can't be called world-class (at least not yet): the Washington Opera and the Los Angeles Opera. It's no accident that he picked those two houses. His dear friend the superstar Plácido Domingo is artistic director of both. Vilar will give his money to powerful, charismatic individuals whose leadership he admires and trusts. His money followed Michael Kaiser, with whom he established a relationship at Covent Garden, to the Kennedy Center, where, among other things, Kaiser created the arts-management program that bears Vilar's name. His money followed Ohnesorg, a "guy who buzzes with ideas," from Carnegie Hall to the Berlin Philharmonic.

Perhaps the most vital personal alliance Vilar has formed is with Valery Gergiev, the charismatic conductor and artistic director of the Kirov Opera in St. Petersburg. Vilar -- who spends part of his summers at Gergiev's White Nights festival in St. Petersburg when he's not at Salzburg -- arguably kept this company afloat with his gift of $14 million during its hand-to-mouth post-Soviet years -- and there is talk of expanding the Kirov Theater (called the Mariinsky at home).

The money he's already donated to the Kirov finances young artists' programs and underwrites six new productions. Vilar likes co-productions, which give the operas he bankrolls more mileage; it's an old concept and a most effective one. The money Vilar has given to Covent Garden, La Scala, and Los Angeles allowed the Kirov-Met co-production to travel to those houses. (His enormous donation to the Kennedy Center includes a program that will bring the Kirov over on a regular basis.)

"It's a smart scenario where you don't have to create five different productions," says Gergiev, who was also recently named principal guest conductor at the Met. "You can share it with so many thousands of opera lovers in so many countries. So far, War and Peace is the biggest success we scored together."