What the obituarists don’t say about Alberto Vilar

What the obituarists don’t say about Alberto Vilar


norman lebrecht

September 09, 2021

The New York Times and the Times of London are predictably harsh about the late investor who died this weekend, having given away more money than any individual to opera houses and festivals before or since. Most of them wiped his name off their walls when he was convicted of fraud.

His legacy survives, however, in the surtitles that have been embedded into their seatbacks, an amenity that allows everyone to understand opera, no matter what language it is sung in.

For this alone, Alberto (whom I knew slightly) deserves some thanks. But the opera grandees who are quoted in the obits are positively vindictive about him, and the ones who are not quoted are even meaner. Graceless ingrates that they are.

Vilar once told a friend he’d have been better off giving the money to a dogs’ home.

The Times says he was ‘was shy and awkward around women’, which is simply untrue. Alberto always had a girlfriend, often more than one. His problems started when he took to sleeping with older women and fleecing them of their savings, a ploy taken from the Mel Brooks script for The Producers.

In the summer of 2002, crippled with back pain in Salzburg, he became engaged at 61 to a beautiful musicologist of 37 who had been recently married to a member of the George W. Bush administration. Wedding invitations went out to a few hundred close friends.

Weeks later they were followed by a card (which I have kept), reading: ‘The event scheduled for 12 October has been postponed. Alberto Vilar.’

Cancelled, actually.

The obits can say what they like about Alberto. The truth is he was a game changer in the financing of opera and classical music. The way he was treated, it is unlikely there will ever be another. There is a culture of contempt for donors among some senior opera figures.

Let me leave you with a quote from Lorin Maazel, one of many to whom Vilar promised a fortune and failed to deliver. Here’s what I wrote in October 2002:

Lorin Maazel, who has reason for bad-mouthing Vilar after being landed with an extra $700,000 bill for their conducting contest, is one of those who has opted for discretion. Both publicly and privately, Maazel has voiced nothing but admiration for his defaulted co-sponsor. “In purely monetary terms,” he told me, “the aggregate of his support … is without precedent. Equally significant is the example he sets. If I have helped establish a charitable trust, I am only following Alberto’s lead.”

At the competition finals at Carnegie Hall this weekend (won by Xian Zhang from Beijing and Bundit Ungrangsee of Thailand) Maazel summoned a visibly frail Vilar onto the stage and lauded him to the heavens. “Lorin treated him like family,” said a mutual friend.





  • A.L. says:

    This two way street stinks of rotten fish in both directions, donor and beneficiary alike. The corruption in the industry at nearly all levels must be staggering. And probably nothing new either.

  • Karl says:

    So instead of stealing from the rich to give to the poor he gave to the arts? I dub thee ‘Opera Hood’ Sir Alberto. Your name is now legend.

  • Tiredofitall says:

    Please take the time to do a spell check. I was embarrassed reading error after error, not to mention much disinformation.

    I knew and dealt with Alberto in the late 90s and very early 00s. Everyone in that orbit knew something was way off. We had no idea of the extent of his legal and mental challenges.

  • Westfan says:

    While it is lovely that he donated money to causes we readers love, that fact that the money was illegally obtained makes his donations tainted. It is a very sad situation indeed.

    • John R says:

      Most of the money appears NOT to have been “illegally obtained”. Please do the math, AND consider the possibility that, at least, there are two sides to every story!

  • Monsoon says:

    “The truth is he was a game changer in the financing of opera and classical music.”

    Huh? Giving lots of money and getting your name plastered on buildings is hardly novel, and many of his pledges were never fulfilled. And he certainly captured so much public attention prior to his downfall because his pledges always came with splashy naming rights.

    In fact, because of Vilar, I’m sure arts organizations are going to be a lot more hesitant to grant naming rights until a pledge is fully fulfilled.

    • J Palinkas says:

      As a close and dear friend if our entire family in Vail Colorado, I know of and did travel w/ late brilliant investor, philanthropist, aside from court records, I know of local governing entities that denied Alberto right to building permits adjacent to his home, empty lot he purchased with intent to expand on his existing residence, unless he made a sizable donation to the building of base of BEAVER CREEK. Frustrated at being “bullied”, I offered a solution that which then was merely a concept of great undertaking, however, he took it and ran with it. He wasted no time getting drafting grandiose designs for THE VILAR CENTER FOR ARTS. A name he modestly agreed to in exchange for his ‘sizable contribution’, build from scratch and his passion for art, music and continuing education for the arts, he felt was not being offered in curriculum in schools, etc. This mini Metropolitan Opera House, whereby the proposed name VILAR CENTER FOR ARTS, decided by Board Members who graciously accepted his sole expense of the operation from architecture design to selection of fabrics for theater curtains, and STEINWAY PIANO.
      Regardless of the alleged, misappropriation of his Corp funds, (less anyone can state such innocence, small or grand-scale, even MARTHA STEWART), I will say he pioneered a standard be it a Robinhood for Arts or be in always in good faith, no one wealthy person has made such contributions of heart and soul to the Arts around the world.

  • CSOA Insider says:

    “There is a culture of contempt for donors among some senior opera figures.”

    Absolutely. Take a very top conductor who displays absolute disdain for donors, in words and action. The disdain is deeper if donors are Jewish and American.

    Yet, while married, he shares behavioral traits with a character like Vilar (with a difference: the women are young and married, preferably staff members. It just makes everything more practical and convenient.)

  • Jack says:

    So, Alberto engaged in fraud, but all should be forgiven because he gave big money [fraudulently obtained] to the richest arts organizations in the world [Salzburg, the Met, etc.]. Right.

  • norman lebrecht says:

    Message from Alberto Vilar’s friend, Walter Pfaeffle, on bias, laziness and inaccuracy in the New York Times obituary:

    Alberto Vilar’s appeals lawyer Vivian Shevitz told me that the obituary of Alberto Vilar in today’s New York Times reads like “a government brief.” Having followed the case from day one I couldn’t agree more: No effort at balance is being made here.

    The writer, who obviously doesn’t know the case, reveals his bias in the subtitle: “Many of his (Vilar’s) pledges (to cultural institutions) were unfulfilled. As Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung” writes also today, many were fulfilled. Probably most.
    By 2017, all so-called victims of what the prosecutors called the $21 million fraud” had been made whole with funds from the more than $50 million frozen in the accounts of
    Amerindo Investment Company since 2005, the day of Vilar’s arrest. Not only were all the accounts returned to investors – but only after the government dithered and refused to allow the defendants to pay their own clients, at great cost. What’s more, a sizable surplus remains even after the funds were returned to the investors. Who knows which government entity will keep this, though it should have been returned to Vilar.

    You wouldn’t know any of these important facts about Vilar’s case – and not just the press releases in 2005 based on inadequate investigation — from reading the New York Times obituary. Instead of doing his own research, the obituary editor relies mostly on stories written by others, even though Ms. Shevitz told me she had a half hour conversation with the editor. An example is the obituary quote by Beverly Sills, the late operatic soprano, which all Vilar haters love: He, Vilar, wasn’t quiet about his giving – he wanted attention. So?

    Take a walk through New York and you see the names of other philanthropists plastered all over town, people like Sandy Weil, David Geffen, Carl Icahn, to name only a few. Do they not want attention? Are they more quiet?

    In 2014, trial judge Judge Richard J.. Sullivan added one year to Vilar’s and Tanaka’s sentence because they allegedly tried to block the “victims” from getting their money back. What he was referring to was an attempt by the defendants to prevent the government from grabbing the UK pension fund and those other excess assets, which were there all along. Some “victims”, though paid in whole, want some of this pension too.
    This can all be found in the public record. Yet the New York Times made no effort to invstigate what really happened in this case. Many readers of the Times obituary probably wondered what Mr. Vilar died of. A call to the Queens morgue where his body was taken would have provided the answer: Natural causes.

    We learned later he died in his sleep of heart failure. This, according to a morgue spokesperson,
    is consider a natural cause of a man his age.

    Another sad day for journalism.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Lawyers will side with whatever party is footing the bills.

      Dead is dead. Let’s move on.

    • Anthony Sayer says:

      …Message…on bias, laziness and inaccuracy in the New York Times obituary…

      Who’da thunk it, eh?

    • John Borstlap says:

      This is all very interesting.

      Did those investors, the victims, ever invest in culture? If they were rich, they should have done so.

      One could argue, from an ethical point of view, that Vilar simply corrected their lack of responsibility for the arts. He skimmed their fortunes to distribute the money over various cultural institutions, like in Europe the tax office does.

    • Bashh says:

      Many people like to criticize the press because of their pre-conceived opinions and then because they do not take the time to read properly.

      I did not have to wonder how Vilar died. His sister gave the information to the reporter:

      “ His sister and only immediate survivor, Carole Vilar Williams, said the cause was a heart attack.”

    • Bashh says:

      I did not have to wonder for a minute how Vilar died. It was clearly stated in the obituary.

      “His sister and only immediate survivor, Carole Vilar Williams, said the cause was a heart attack.”

  • Yes Addison says:

    There’s more I could say, but I’ll limit myself to this: I think it would be best if his grieving intimates (at all levels of intimacy) worked through their grief privately, rather than trying to sell those of us were around 20 years ago the same load we weren’t buying then. I find nothing about the late Vilar worth lionizing.

  • Rob says:

    Typical crowd-pleasing Libran (October 4, 1940).

  • Petros Linardos says:

    Othen than the Maazel/Vilar competition, how much did Vilar donate towards education and promotion of young talent?

    If one wants to support new talent, competitions are not the best way. This is often discussed in this space.

  • Morgan says:

    Alberto wove a myth around every aspect of his life, from his birthplace to his wealth and giving to his many friends none who ever, I believe, knew the truth about him, nor did Alberto know the truth about himself. Such mythologizing is always doomed to fall apart. . . and it did. As I read the NYT’s obit, that is the tone.

  • fflambeau says:

    Sorry, NL, for someone who knew him “just slightly” this is a preposterous defense of a conman and convicted crook.

    To say that the charges against him that he didn’t like women are outrageous because he always had young women around him could equally apply to someone like Jeffrey Epstein. This is really a stinker as is your defense of this immoral thing.

    A man giving away money that he has stolen from others is nothing to celebrate.

  • As a donor, Vilar had few inroads to Europe because their arts institution are almost all owned and operated by the government. He thus focused on three private institutions, the Salzburger Festspiel, the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden, and Bayreuth. Vilar was quite a champion in the high social circles of Salzburg. The Berliner Zeitung commented acerbically: “The ladies of Salzburg society had to grin constantly–Vilar was single! They had to be careful not to tear the facelift seams behind their ears.”

  • William Halbert says:

    I’ve probably known Alberto longer than anyone blogging here – in college, the military, NYC & CA visits over a 60-year period. Although he never gave me a cent; he was most gracious & generous to my family bestowing many thoughtful gestures. Detailed research into the particulars of the case against him reveals govt. misconduct & the fact that little if any of his fortune could factually be construed to have been obtained fraudulently. Many of the comments here are made mainly by people who knew him only from sensational newspaper articles. Nowhere was it reported that he paid for dozens of the less fortunate to obtain college & medical school degrees, among many other unpublicized acts of compassion. It is truly a tragedy that he is being defamed here & in the press when he is no longer around to tell his whole story & to defend himself.

  • electron says:

    Interesting information, Mr. Halbert: I would be interested to hear more about Mr. Vilar’s less publicised activities. Any insights about his younger years would be welcome too. Thank you for your comment.