Hard on the heels of the 1984 debacle the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden is involved in another major damage limitation exercise. One of their highest profile benefactors has been arrested and charged with allegedly stealing $5m (£2.7m) from a business client.
In 1999 Cuban-born Alberto Vilar promised £10m (US$18.2) to the Royal Opera House to finance the building of a glass-skinned atrium in the centre of the opera house complex. Additional finance was promised for a very worthy young artist training scheme, and aircraft style video screens in 700 seat backs in the main auditorium for subtitles. To recognise these donations the completed atrium is known as Vilar Floral Hall (see photo to the right), and the development programme as the Vilar Young Artists Fund.
Alberto Vilar left Cuba when Castro took power in 1959, and is reputed to have amassed a fortune of £520m (US$950m) from investment in hi-tec companies such as Microsoft and AOL. He has made large donations to other arts institutions world-wide including the Metropolitan Opera House in New York and the American Academy in Berlin.
Unfortunately it appears that, like the software he invests in, Mr Vilar's financial fortunes have crashed. He has reportedly had problems making the promised donations to the Met, and they have cut and run by removing a sign recognising his munificence. A promised donation to the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra also apparently failed to materialise. Meanwhile the Royal Opera has reportedly only received £4m (US$7.3) of the £7m (US$12.7) promised for the glass house. Covent Garden are being typically British and stiff upper-lipped about the fiasco. Tony Hall, Chief Executive of the Royal Opera says it is too early to say whether Vilar's name will also be written out of the history of Covent Garden. But thankfully he tells us a new sponsor is in the wings for the much needed young artist development programme, and Vilar's name will definitely not be associated with that.
A sorry saga, and I sincerely hope that the young artists who benefitted from the excellent development programme will continue to be supported. But it does all go to confirm what Sir Peter Maxwell Davies told us in his recent Royal Philharmonic Society Annual Lecture. The arts, and serious music in particular, need proper funding not funny money. Otherwise the next thing we are going to hear is that the Piano Man is stepping up to the Covent Garden plate.
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