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A Knight at the Opera

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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."

This is what some people see as the "globalization" of opera, but in reality, in addition to making economic sense, it represents only a fraction of opera production in the world. At the same time, Vilar can joke, Dr. Mabuse-style, "In another two or three years, I'll have a call on 40 percent of tomorrow's singers, who are coming out of my artists' programs."

Not surprisingly, the issue of artistic meddling is a nagging leitmotif in Vilar's life. When the San Francisco Opera was shopping for a new general director, Vilar contacted the headhunter and said that if the board chose either Sarah Billinghurst (from the Met) or Gerard Mortier (formerly at the Salzburg Festival), it could expect a "substantial gift." As the story is usually told, when the company chose Pamela Rosenberg, Vilar cut it off and sent his money to Los Angeles.

Though Franklin "Pitch" Johnson, chairman of the San Francisco Opera board, insists Vilar's offer wasn't improper, he adds that "we thought about it only for a moment, and we immediately declined the offer. It was very nice, but we didn't want that hovering over us when we made the decision."

He says the idea of sending the "promised" money to Los Angeles instead is not a connection anyone in San Francisco made. "In L.A., he was establishing a whole new program," Pitch says. That makes sense: Plácido Domingo is there -- which suggests that L.A. was going to get money anyway. Projects there include mounting a spectacular Ring cycle with special effects by George Lucas's Industrial Light & Magic, and resurrecting zarzuela, Spanish operetta -- a passion shared by these two Latin honchos. Johnson also said there was no anger or resentment on his part.

But would they have accepted the money if they'd picked one of Vilar's choices? "If he wanted to give us money later because we chose the person he liked, I guess we wouldn't turn it down -- it's hard enough to finance opera as it is."

Vilar is not embarrassed about using his wallet to influence that decision (as many suspect it was flashed at the New York Philharmonic shortly before the appointment of Lorin Maazel, with whom Vilar set up an international conductors' competition, to succeed Kurt Masur; both Maazel and Vilar strongly deny any quid pro quo). But his choler rises again at any suggestion of artistic meddling. "They insult the recipients, not me," he charges. "They say Joe Volpe is a whore who takes my money and lets me run the show," he adds, referring to the Met's powerful general manager. Michael Kaiser agrees: "He's never once asked me to change a program in order to mirror what he thinks it should be. He's not a meddling donor -- I've dealt with meddling donors."

It's not as if Vilar is pushing his untalented girlfriends onstage à la Citizen Kane, or wants to direct a Ring cycle himself, or, even worse, wants a zarzuela he composed himself given a "Live From Lincoln Center" broadcast. Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Manuela Hoelterhoff, who turned a sharp and cynical eye on the opera world in her book Cinderella and Company, thinks Vilar should meddle more at the Met. "Clearly, Volpe and Levine are aesthetically highly unreliable," says Hoelterhoff. "The greatest disasters do not bear Vilar's name -- shows like the recent Norma. Maybe he should pay to have himself cloned as a final act of charity."

"There are some people who help, and want to be recognized, but they don't go," says Domingo, another close friend. "He's saying, 'I really love this, it's not just something that I do.' " And what Gergiev loves about Vilar is that he shuts up and listens: "In front of me, he never speaks too much, which is maybe the greatest quality I enjoy. I don't like people who talk and talk and talk."Vilar did once try to meddle at the Met -- not artistically but financially: He wanted the company to invest more intelligently, but being a conservative institution, the Met couldn't afford to flirt with Vilar's high-yield, high-risk roller-coaster method. And it could be a good thing the Met didn't let him near its portfolio, because his company's public mutual fund, Amerindo Technology, fell more than 50 percent in 2001, according to several published reports. This has sent shivers through the companies he supports, which wonder -- privately, of course -- whether Vilar will be able to keep up the commitments he has made. A shortfall would be devastating for all the companies he supports in light of the recession and also, at the Met and the Philharmonic, Mayor Bloomberg's likely decision to delay the city's contribution to the $1.2 billion renovation of Lincoln Center.

"Mayor Bloomberg inherited a less than optimal fiscal situation, and people have to expect widespread cutbacks," Vilar concedes. "As a private supporter of the arts, I would hope that the music lovers of New York would do whatever they can to make the redevelopment project a success."

And Vilar says he's unfazed, insisting to me that everything he's promised will be delivered "safe and sound." Moreover, he still believes that the greatest Internet explosion is just around the corner, and that "in the next ten years you are going to see the biggest advances in the delivery of human therapeutics to treat formerly untreatable diseases because of recombinant technologies, genomics -- all of that."

What few people in the music world know is that Vilar's philanthropy includes health care -- although this interest has a distinctly musical ring. Aside from his involvement with the Department of Neurological Surgery at Columbia University, he gave $4.1 million in 1998 to the Hospital for Special Surgery, to set up the Alberto Vilar Hand and Upper Extremity Research Center. Then there's the Cornell/ Salzburg Medical Program, which convenes in the castle featured in the final scene of The Sound of Music, bringing in a thousand doctors (dubbed Vilar fellows) each year from Eastern Europe to receive training from top doctors from top institutions in the West. And perhaps the pièce de résistance: He has given a major donation to set up the Alberto Vilar Voice Restoration Program at Harvard's Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Vilar obviously wants to extend the shelf life of his favorite voices -- many of which, including those of Cecilia Bartoli and Hei-Kyung Hong, can be heard at tribute dinners that announce these donations.

Despite the 100 or more performances he attends each year, and the acclaim he has won, there is in the end something solitary about Vilar.

"The part of my life that definitely got shortchanged was the social part," he admits. He remains close to his ex-wife, flying her and her mother last year to the Bayreuth festival, and dining with her regularly. Wayne Koestenbaum, in The Queen's Throat, writes, "Opera has always suited those who failed at love." But Vilar seems never to have wasted much time on love in the first place. Except, of course, his love for opera.

"While all my friends were chasing girls in the pubs on Second Avenue, I was working," he says. "Ninety percent of the time I go to the opera, I go by myself. I don't need to drag a date. I'm enjoying it by myself."

Photographed by Jessica Wynne


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