Across from me at lunch is Agnes Varis, the only chemist I know. Between us sits one of the few women conductors I know: Eve Queler.
Varis, 81, has made a fortune as president and chief executive officer of the pharmaceutical company Agvar Chemicals Inc.
Queler, 80, who founded the Opera Orchestra of New York 40 years ago to showcase stars in exotic repertoire, has often looked for two nickels to rub together.
Yes. One old lady gave the other a lot of money.
“I nearly had a stroke,” says Queler, who was conducting in Torre del Lago, Italy, when her mobile rang last summer.
Opera Orchestra had received an unsolicited $250,000 from Varis, who is best known in music circles for supporting the rather grander Metropolitan Opera.
The gift saved the scrappy outfit, which celebrates tomorrow night at Avery Fisher Hall with a performance of “L’Africaine,” Meyerbeer’s deranged epic about Vasco da Gama, an African queen and a poisonous tree.
Sicilian hotshot and Queler adorant, Marcello Giordani, gets to sing “O Paradis,” a tenor favorite.
“What possessed you?” I ask Varis, whose other interests include Democrats, cats, jazz.
Varis shares her Central Park South apartment with Kallee, a feline, since the death of husband Karl Leichtman in 2009.
The Bulgarian Wonder
“We went to many concerts over the years. We loved Eve’s conducting and the unusual music. What was the one with the Swedish fellow?”
“That was ‘Pearl Fishers,’” says Queler. “Nicolai Gedda. Oh, the problems he caused me when I did ‘William Tell.’” He canceled the day of. I wandered the streets to find a tenor who could sing the role.”
In the 1970s, when Queler first stepped to the podium in her age-defying black bun and draft-catching diaphanous tops, the huge stars who once roamed the earth invariably joined her for crazy nights at Carnegie Hall.
Who can forget Bulgarian wonder Ghena Dimitrova in “Nabucco” singing so loudly they clapped back home in Sofia? Or crowds surging to the stage as a young Placido Domingo and a ripe Raina Kabaivanska clasped one another after a sexy performance of “Francesca da Rimini.”
How did you get all those big names?
“They wanted to sing operas no one performed like “Parisina,” which I did for Montserrat Caballe.
“And they supported me. ‘I lift my chapeau to a woman,’ said Caballe. I hadn’t studied conducting. Let’s not forget neither Juilliard nor Manhattan accepted women conducting students then. But I got to know many singers as a rehearsal pianist -- Domingo, for instance, during ‘Carmen’ at the New York City Opera.”
The big conducting career was never to be, though what Queler achieved in the face of extreme prejudice -- and few rehearsals -- was nothing short of miraculous. Her reward often included snotty reviews, which fortunately did little to deflect admiring hordes.
Varis has noticed there are no women conductors on the Met roster, and that is probably a bad thing for Peter Gelb, the general manager (and husband of conductor Keri-Lynn Wilson).
“I plan to discuss the matter with him soon,” Varis says, adjusting her glasses as she looks up from her smoked salmon plate at Petrossian, a serene palace of caviar near Carnegie Hall and her residence.
She remains fiercely devoted to women’s causes, now that she has beaten off brain cancer and gotten back a lot of her voom. Young women find “Agvice” helps them move up the corporate ladder, and she welcomes them to her office, which she visits daily.
As lunch progresses with salads and more salmon, Varis, the daughter of poor Greek immigrants who settled in Brooklyn, offers her own tales of survival.
At age 39, the new owners of the company she had joined at age 20 offered her a $1 million consulting fee over three years.
“That was a lot of money then, but I dithered until my husband asked, ‘What would you do if you were 39 years old and a man?’ I said, ‘Start my own business.’ And so I did. I knew all about the FDA and manufacturing.”
“I also remember, vividly, a friend saying: ‘You will fail. Why? Because you are a woman.’ I was furious. Within two years, I made the million. And then I bought a red Mercedes.”
(These days, the privately held Agvar Chemicals, has yearly revenue between $50 million and $100 million).
Later, until someone crashed into it (sadly, a woman driver), Varis checked on her generic pill kingdom in a $300,000 Bentley.
“I like things, but after you have the stuff, it’s time to do some good,” she says.
Veterinary students at Tufts University relax in the Agnes Varis Campus Center. “It is important to have your name up,” she adds. “Not for ego. But so others know we women can do it.”
Humans facing catastrophic costs for animal companions needing cancer care or emergency treatment can seek help from the funds she gave to Frankie’s Friends at the New York Veterinary Clinic in the name of Kallee Varis and the deceased Zeus Varis.
Especially opera nuts adore her. Varis money sets aside Met tickets at $20 and $25 for seats costing around ten times that.
“People want to go, but can’t afford to. You should read the letters I get, especially from seniors. We don’t do enough for old people. What’s wrong with this country? You shouldn’t have to wait for a private entrepreneur.”
For Queler’s show tomorrow, she underwrote 500 prime seats at $20 for the concert.
“All gone!” says a happy Queler, making a quick call. She retires with tomorrow’s performance, but Varis’s gift allows Opera Orchestra to continue under a charismatic maestro who shares her love of odd repertoire, Alberto Veronese.
As they describe their parallel lives, both note they have the same birth date: Jan. 11.
“It was meant to be,” says Eve Queler.
The Opera Orchestra of New York performs “L’Africaine” at Avery Fisher Hall at 7:30 p.m. Information: +1-212-906-9137; http://www.operaorchestrany.org.
The concert is dedicated to tenor Richard Tucker, who sang Vasco at Queler’s first performance nearly 40 years ago, and to Karl Leichtman, husband of Agnes Varis.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, Bloomberg News’s leisure and arts section. All opinions are her own.)