THE GIVER AND THE GIFT
THE GIVER: Vahid Alaghband, entrepreneur and investor
In and out of business
My family has been in business for at least four generations. In the 1970s my family was one of the largest industrial groups in Iran. Because of the size of our business and our perceived US business connections, the family’s assets got expropriated after the revolution, in 1980.
I left Iran knowing what the revolution was doing to the country and with a clear understanding that the page had turned and my generation of Western-minded businessmen had no place in the new order. As far as I was concerned, that chapter of my life was closed and I needed to find a new home.
I was educated in Switzerland and America, but London became the consensus point on which the family agreed. I had no roots in this country and I did not know then much about England. We had only a little bit of money for a rainy day, so I borrowed from some family members and I found a one-room office and became the only employee of my own business.
Although I have always been more an industrialist than a trader, I thought, ‘I don’t have enough capital, and because I can’t invest in manufacturing infrastructure, I will make my money out of trading commodities with the emerging markets.’ I understand the dynamics of developing economies well because Iran went through the same process.
We now buy businesses, invest in them, improve them and hold them for four to seven years before we re-sell.
Why I give
The most important thing I learnt in life is that permanency is not the state of play for one’s life, so instead of buying one business and sticking to it for the rest of my life, I thought of the world as my oyster. Revolution in Iran became a liberating factor for me; it allowed me to expand my horizons.
Even today I consider it to be an opportunity, a privilege really, to be considered equal in front of the law, have my own rights and be able to say what I think and do what I want. That freedom which most people take for granted in this country is the true gift which the UK has given me, and that is why I am duty-bound to give back.
I heard about Glyndebourne in the mid-1980s. I was told it was very difficult to go to Glyndebourne, to find tickets. I called up and they laughed at me. They said basically it’s a members-only place and only surplus tickets are available to the public.
That made me even more determined. I chatted up the box office and said: ‘I don’t care what tickets become available, I just want to come and see what Glyndebourne is all about.’
It was still the old auditorium, it wasn’t air-conditioned and it was a very hot day. I remember that. The production was a Janácek opera. The whole experience of Glyndebourne and the ‘best of British’ which it offers simply flabbergasted me: it was really love at first sight.
Years later, an American friend, Paul Collins, who was on the board of Glyndebourne, asked if I wanted to become ‘a little bit more engaged’, and I graduated from a friend of the box office to a sponsor supporting Euryanthe by Weber in 2002. I was then in the process of bidding for a very large German company and I was reading a lot about German history and music, hence Weber.
An illness for excellence
Glyndebourne is a family business, very much like most of my businesses, and it’s run with values which are very dear to me. It’s a large institution, but you know when you go in there that it’s as if you’re all family members. It aspires to excellence and I have the illness for aspiring to excellence in me. It’s a disease because once you have it, you make your life more complicated because you want everything delivered at the highest levels of excellence — and Glyndebourne does that.
I’m an early-music fanatic, so we sponsored Giulio Cesare and it became one of their landmark productions: it’s now travelled all over the world. That was probably the opera I most enjoyed being associated with, especially because Danielle de Niese, who’s now married to Gus Christie, got to know Gus through singing Cleopatra. I’d like to think the opera did more for Gus than just entertain his audiences!
THE GIFT: Gus Christie, executive chairman of Glyndebourne
My grandfather was passionate about opera and he used to take trips in his car to Bayreuth in Germany; he was a Wagner nut and he felt that England was lacking in culture, so in the 1920s he built a music room.
He didn’t do things by halves, so scenes from operas were put on in this room and he would get a few amateur singers, a few professional singers and invite his friends for a nice soirée.
There were a few professionals that he started to invite, one of whom turned out to be my grandmother, who was singing for the Carl Rosa Opera Company at the time. He was a 50-year-old bachelor and he fell in love and wooed her. He wanted to extend the music programme, but she persuaded him that ‘if you’re going to spend all that money, for God’s sake build a proper opera house,’ which he did.
They built a 300-seat opera house in the garden and it opened in 1934 with my grandmother singing the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro.
There have been some tough times over the years. I think when my dad took over in the early Sixties, he was living from hand to mouth from one year to the next. It was just at the beginning of sponsorship and it was all the cigarette companies who were keeping us going: the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation, Benson & Hedges, Imperial Tobacco. All those companies got the ball rolling in terms of arts sponsorship.
The house then had grown to 830 seats or so, and it was a problem just balancing the books. To attract people down to Glyndebourne has always been a challenge, so you had to have very good-quality operas on your stage. The festival has never had any government money.
We have our annual tour, which goes around the country, we are filming most of our new productions and going into cinemas, where it’s £10-£15 a ticket, we’re streaming this year through The Telegraph for free; we’ve done it the last three years through The Guardian and had 100,000 watching our operas online. We’re also doing community operas. There is much more to Glyndebourne than just the summer festival.
Along with the membership subscriptions, fundraising accounts for 25 per cent of our income (we’ve got a turnover of about £25 million a year). Then 65 per cent of it is box office and 10 per cent the shop, catering and everything else. It’s in the region of about £5 million a year that we need to raise.
Almost 100 per cent of our sponsorship is now from the private donor, and there are various levels at which they support us: they either pay £250,000 for a new production or they can share a new production between two of them, or we have a syndicate, which is a group of individuals who all put in between £15,000 and £25,000. We now have a pool of about 80 people giving us £10,000-plus a year.
They’re passionate about opera, they’re passionate about Glyndebourne. They are a vital part: they allow us to keep our ticket prices to a certain level and they are philanthropic heroes in my book.
A little help from my friend
Our relationship with Vahid came through one of our trustees, Paul Collins, who has been a fantastic supporter, both financially and also strategically. He was the pioneer of individual sponsorship of our operas. Paul and Vahid know what’s not easy for us to find sponsorship for, so that’s the one they pick because they know that they’re helping us out.
Vahid brings down groups of his friends, his family and people that he likes to entertain, and he doesn’t demand too much out of it. When you have someone like Vahid it’s a breath of fresh air and it’s a pleasure.
Opera is an art form that’s been around for 400 years, and if one gets it right it’s a very enriching, life-enhancing experience. My grandfather’s motto was ‘Not the best that we can do but the best that can be done anywhere’, and that is the bar that we still aspire to.
The Glyndebourne Festival runs 17 May-24 August. Limited tickets are available at glyndebourne.com