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Bad Nights at the Opera

It happened on another 9/11 — 2000, to be exact. Tenor-superior Plácido Domingo, the L.A. Opera’s newly anointed artistic director, called a press conference, and the freeloaders were all there to sip the opera company’s coffee and sample Domingo’s pie-in-the-sky. There was plenty: a new production of Wagner’s Ring involving George Lucas, a new opera by John Williams, continual production swaps with the mighty Kirov of St. Petersburg. A quiet, bespectacled man sat up back. “I am delighted that my friend Alberto Vilar has pledged to me ongoing support for Los Angeles Opera,” said Domingo. “His extraordinary involvement will be manifested in supporting the Los Angeles Opera with an initial donation of $2 million in the 2001-02 season . . .” None of the above proclamations ever achieved fulfillment.

Alberto Vilar’s name still remains in two places on the L.A. Opera’s program, on the board of directors and among “Domingo’s Angels,” an elite list of “individuals who have made a leadership commitment to fulfilling the artistic initiatives of the Domingo seasons 2001–2005.” That does not, however, mesh with recent news about this flamboyant, if controversial, arts figure, co-founder (with Gary Tanaka) of the money-management firm Amerindo Investment Advisors, who with his partner spent the recent holiday weekend in a New York City jail facing criminal-fraud charges, unable to raise bail. There, as of June 6, Vilar remained.

In his day, Vilar rode his technology stocks to dazzling heights, and used the take to finance his operatic passion. At the Metropolitan his benevolence got him his name, in foot-high gold letters (recently removed), over the “Vilar Grand Tier” and a lifetime seat in Orchestra Row A-101 (a lousy location for a true opera lover for both sight and sound, if truth be told). London’s Royal Opera sported a Vilar Young Artists’ Program; the Vilar Center for the Arts stood proud in Avon, Colorado.

By the time Vilar had come to flash his bankroll at Domingo and the Los Angeles Opera, Vilar’s fortunes were already showing signs of tottering. One technology fund he controlled, The New York Times reported, fell 64.8 percent in 2000, and declined another 50.8 percent in 2001. The story circulated at the time that Vilar had decided to play footsie with Domingo in his new Los Angeles post only after the San Francisco Opera, which he had previously supported, backed away from his choice as artistic director and went with the modernist-leaning Pamela Rosenberg. For whatever reason, Vilar and Domingo became entwined. In the summer of 2000, Vilar invested heavily in Domingo’s prestigious “Operalia” talent competition, and then stayed on to lay his $2 million pledge on the company itself — plus $2 million to Domingo’s other company, the Washington Opera.

Almost immediately, things started not happening. The best anyone can glean from the public-relations strongholds at the Met, the Washington Opera and Los Angeles is that part of Vilar’s pledges — a total hovering around some $20 million over five years — has been restored by friends, including, of course, Domingo. (Rude thought: Might this be why the great man continues to pull down his singer’s fees, at an age when most tenors might sit back and retire the tonsils?) In 2002, New York Philharmonic conductor Lorin Maazel replaced, from his own pocket, a $700,000 pledge that Vilar had made for the orchestra’s conductors’ competition.

None of this, of course, adds up to the kind of boondoggle that results in a kind-faced, opera-loving gentleman — 64, born in New Jersey, raised in Cuba and Puerto Rico — being picked up by the feds at the Newark Airport on a holiday weekend. According to government sources, the charges involved an actual theft: $5 million from an old friend and Amerindo investor, and from three other women who accuse Vilar of helping himself to millions more of their money and refusing to give it back or to come up with promised interest.

One of the alleged victims is a woman who should be dear to all local opera lovers: Tara Colburn, the very classy, slender lady who sat down front center and set the whole Dorothy Chandler Pavilion aglow by her presence. Tara had endowed the opera company to pay for the supertitles that run above each performance; her husband, Richard, had paid for that whole music school across the street. Tara had deposited a large sum in Vilar’s investment firm, and when the market turned skittish, she tried to get it back. She died in May 2003. Vilar still hasn’t returned her money.


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