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The world's most prestigious opera houses are short of cash - could sponsorship from luxury brands be the answer?

Rolex is supporting Milan's famed La Scala theatre - Reto Albertalli
Rolex is supporting Milan's famed La Scala theatre - Reto Albertalli

As the recent news about Milan’s famed La Scala having to reject a €15million sponsorship deal with the Saudi government demonstrates, funding the arts is not for the faint-hearted.

Legacy buildings (La Scala’s most recent renovation cost north of €60 million), hefty pay-rolls (above €70m for La Scala according to the outgoing artistic director, Alexander Pereira) and the political imperative to keep ticket prices affordable are just part of the story.

With public funding ever more difficult to rely on, a world-leading academy to support and an absolute requirement to stage opera that sets the bar globally, it’s little wonder that Pereira is enthusiastic about Rolex’s support for La Scala. The brand also sponsors the Royal Opera House, New York’s Met and the Vienna Philharmonic Opera. Rolex won't say exactly how much they give to La Scala, but their support funds around six productions a year.

La Scala Rolex
With the political imperative to keep ticket prices affordable, it is difficult for such venues to secure enough funding

“Public support is coming down every year so you have to look for sponsorship. Theatre directors spend probably half their time on that.” This particular sponsorship burst into life at Sunday’s Gala Ambasciatori Rolex.

Placido Domingo lead a line-up of Rolex ‘testimonees’, including  Sonya Yoncheva, Gustavo Dudamel, Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Flórez and Yuja Wang, that demonstrated not just how deeply the brand is committed to supporting music, but the style in which it operates - an approach that the company brings to everything it touches.

Gala nights are musically playful and there was plenty for a stylish La Scala audience to enjoy, particularly the encores that saw Flórez sing a Mexican song, accompanying himself on guitar, and Yoncheva flirting outrageously with Flórez, Kaufmann and even maestro Domingo himself as they took it in turns to sing the Toreador song.

That was all followed up by a dinner on the stage itself for La Scala’s patrons (and a sizeable number of Rolex retailers).

Drawing that sort of star power is impressive enough, particularly when opera commitments are set six and seven years in the future, but the real value of Rolex support became clear in conversations over the weekend.

Rolex La Scala
Sonya Yoncheva and Juan Diego Florez perform at La Scala

Whether as fillip for burgeoning careers, supporter of passion projects or genuine affection for the brand, the message that Rolex support sets the standard came over loud and clear. The maestro, Placido Domingo really doesn’t need Rolex to further his career or boost his ego, so his appreciation is surely unfeigned.

“I believe that the partnership that I have built with Rolex through the decades is as strong as stainless steel," he says, "one of mutual respect and admiration for what we do and love.”

With few real career ambitions left unfulfilled (save for a passing regret that he never mastered the art of Fado), Domingo’s concern is for youth. Operalia is an international competition for young singers, set up by Domingo in 1993 and that looks, in Domingo’s words, “to discover singers (that have) … the potential to become complete artists, … (and) tomorrow’s stars”.

Both the conductor, Gustavo Dudamel (who has been working with Steven Spielberg on a West Side Story for the silver screen) and the tenor, Juan Diego Flórez, repeat Domingo’s appreciation for the help given to their projects.

Rolex La Scala
Rolex won't say exactly how much they give to La Scala, but their support funds around six productions a year

Dudamel is a product of Venezuela’s legendary El Sistema, the educational programme that looks to use music as a transformative social force and seems determined to keep that work going, even in the most trying circumstances, while Flórez’ Sinfonía por el Perú has had a serious impact in his home country, improving grades, reducing violence and even teenage pregnancy rates.

“I saw how Rolex worked with other singers, so, of course I was interested. The brand helps with the project and with Rolex's support it was possible for Sinfonía players to take part in the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic and the entire orchestra will take part in the festival in 2021,” he says.

Perhaps the most revealing comment of the night came from Michael Bladerer of the Vienna Philharmonic. “Actually, we were scared of having a sponsor. We thought it would mean losing artistic integrity, but Rolex has never interfered," he says "Instead the brand has taught us what to expect from a sponsor and also, something we didn’t expect; how to appreciate our own brand value. We didn’t know we were even a brand.”

Against that, Alexander Pereira says he’s never had a sponsor try to interfere “and the only ones raising the idea are those who don’t want to go out and find funding!”

How does all this play out for Rolex? The answer lies in the association with quality that the programmes bring. Rolex picks the best and stands by them and, in a virtuous circle, that helps attract the best, enforcing the perception that Rolex is the best.

I spoke to Jeff Chinn, the MD of Jersey watch retailer Hettich and his reaction was that, “the level of quality is just what you expect from Rolex, it shows how they pursue excellence in everything”. It’s a simple enough proposition but to carry it through requires plentiful resources and a level of commitment that’s measured in decades – to compete with Rolex you need to be able to write cheques on the future at a level that few public institutions can even contemplate.

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