Classical music and the arts would dwindle and starve without them… but what makes Australia’s biggest donors dig into their pockets?

On a balmy November evening Maureen and Tony Wheeler settled into their seats in Melbourne’s Arts Centre. They were attending Opera Australia’s first ever production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, accompanied by four friends who had flown in from England especially for the occasion. There was a palpable buzz of excitement as the audience crowded into the auditorium. With tickets sold out over 12 months ago, this was the arts event of the year – not that the Wheelers had had to queue for tickets. Tonight they were the guests of honour.

Having long dreamt of seeing the Ring staged in Melbourne, the Wheelers had earned their VIP seating through a $5 million donation to Opera Australia in 2010 to help them stage the epic four-opera cycle. Three years later, their dream was about to materialise before their eyes.

“A lot of worried thoughts were bubbling to the forefront of my mind on opening night,” Maureen Wheeler told me over the phone from the UK. “What if people weren’t going to like it? Or worse: what if it was a total disaster?”

As Finnish conductor...