San Francisco Social Diary: 85th Opera Opening Night

Grand foyer of the War Memorial Opera House.


Each September, the divas of San Francisco society flock to the San Francisco Opera opening night to launch the social season.

Over 3,000 devotees sold-out the black-tie event! SFer’s take the dress code seriously – even some top hats came out of hiding – while ladies raided local designers for gowns and safe deposit boxes for jewels.

The gala ushered in a new era with General Director David Gockley’s first full season.

He personally welcomed each patron to the pre-performance cocktail reception in the Delilah Courtyard next to War Memorial Opera House.

Parading through the sycamore tree-lined path to Delilah.

While opening night’s Samson and DelilahCamille Saint-Saëns’ biblical epic – was inherited from the previous Opera manager Pamela Rosenberg, now Managing Director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, innovative Gockley plans six new productions at SFO including a Tannhäuser, and the world premiere of Philip Glass’s Appomattox in October.

Still boyish-looking, Gockley joined the SFO after 35 years with the Houston Grand Opera, where at age 29 he became the youngest person to ever lead an American opera company.

Before that there was a stopover in Manhattan to teach at the prestigious Buckley School and then earn his MBA at Columbia University.

Opening night began with the traditional singing of The Star Spangled Banner, followed by on onstage welcome from Opera Association President George Hume and Opera Board Chairman Pitch Johnson.

Then Gockley asked for a moment of silence for the opera legends that we lost this year: Joe Harris, Beverly Sills, and Italian tenor Luciano Pavarotti.

He announced that the next day’s annual Opera in the Park concert (over 17,000 people attended) would be dedicated to Pavarotti, who had just died the day before. A moment of silence honoring the legendary Italian tenor ended with a recording of Pavarotti’s signature rendition of Puccini’s “Nessun dorma.”

Italian-born opera lover Maria Manetti Farrow commented, “The world has lost one of the most beautiful voices of this century and a great human being. He made opera accessible to the public through innovations like The Three Tenors, with Placido Domingo and José Carreras.”

Opera Gala co-chairs Marybeth LaMotte and Cheryl Baxter.

The Nicolas Joel production of Samson and Delilah was in French and starred the Russian mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina as the temptress Delilah, tenor Clifton Forbis as Sampson, Juha Uusitalo as The High Priest of Dagon, and Oren Gradus as The Old Hebrew. Directed by Sandra Bernhard, the performance was conducted by Patrick Summers, with original lighting design by Thomas Munn.

New Yorker Francis Barlow was in town, and introduced me to her friends, Carrie Robbins and Douglas Schmidt. Schmidt designed the set with its dramatic temples and massive columns – Schmidt quipped, “But it all comes down in the end anyway.” Robbins’ was responsible for the opulent costumes.

Observing the crowd, fashion lover Sally Debenham (longtime friend of Bill Blass) noted, “Astounding! It’s a whole new group of young people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s: enthusiastic, having a wonderful time…that bodes well for the future of opera.” Her friend, John Capizzi, General Manager of Neiman Marcus agreed.

This can be partly attributed to the young chairs, Cheryl Baxter and Marybeth La Motte. Also, the city has a young mayor, Mayor Gavin Newsom, who is running for re-election, and escorted aspiring actress Jennifer Siebel.

And David Gockley deserves credit too. He is committed to attracting a wider following for opera and in Houston he pioneered opera’s public simulcast on giant outdoor video screens, which has been copied by others.

Here, he’s utilizing SFO’s new Koret-Taube Media Suite on the fifth floor of the opera house. Said to be the first in America, the high-definition video production facility broadcasts to AT&T Park and other location.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and David Gockley, Opera general director.

Jeannik Littlefield and daughter Denise Sobel with husband
Norman Keller.










During intermission the $10,000 + donors head to the Intermezzo Lounge – among the paparazzi – to mingle, chat and sip champagne. Seen in the lounge was sponsor and honorary chair, Jeannik Littlefield with her son, Jacques Littlefield and his wife Sandy, and her daughter, Denise Sobel, and her husband Norman Keller.

Other production sponsors were Bernard and Barbara Osher and Joan and David Traitel, honorary chair, Cynthia Fry Gunn with her husband, SFO board member John Gunn, and their son Matt Gunn with Kate Larsen, daughter of board member Tom Larsen and wife Shelia.

Dr. Robert Harvey and Patricia Pope.

Another grouping included board member, honorary chair, and grand sponsor DeDe Wilsey with her son Trevor Traina and his wife Alexis; beautiful Patsy Pope in a blue ball gown from Paris; and other Board members Doreen Woo Ho and her husband James Ho; Carol Franc Buck; and Athena Troxel Blackburn with her husband, Timothy Blackburn.

Delia Ehrlich told me that her parents, Janet and Mortimer Fleishhacker, always took her to the opera as a child. “We sat in Box M every opening night,” she reminisced. “Tonight, I’m even wearing my mother’s vintage gown, earrings and necklace. She shopped in Paris at Balmain and Madame Gres and was always on the best-dressed list.”

After two more acts and another intermission – hey, at least it wasn’t Wagner – it was on to the Opera Balls!

After the performance, opera devotee Jock McBaine said, “David Gockley and a newly re-energized board of directors are slowly but markedly improving musical standards at San Francisco Opera. And with the arrival of new Musical Director Nicola Luisotti in 2009, as well as an upcoming endowment drive, the future at SFO now looks bright indeed.”


After the performance, guests were ravenous for the succulent dinner and swarmed the Opera Ball Pavilion. Cheryl Baxter and Marybeth La Motte, 2007 Opera Guild Ball co-chairs, looked spectacular wearing Emanuel Ungaro gowns in brilliant shades of indigo and amethyst, and jewels by Boucheron, both sponsors of the evening with Wells Fargo.

Ken Monnens and Maria Manetti Farrow in Valentino.

Event sponsors Dr. Isha and Asim Abdullah now own the House of Ungaro so naturally,
Isha was wearing a strapless, flowing violet and teal mousseline gown by Ungaro – who else?

The dinner sponsor was the Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe law firm, headed by Cheryl’s husband, Ralph Baxter. Apparently, pillow talk can be charitable! “We sold out months in advance and raised over $1 million – the highest ever!” Cheryl said.

Co-sponsors of the production, Barbra and Bernard Osher, celebrated Bernard’s 80th birthday with 75 of his closest friends. Joan Snitzer and her husband Irwin Levy came all the way from Texas to honor the man who once owned the prestigious Butterfield & Butterfield auction house. Acquired by eBay in 1999, and by Bonhams in 2002, the old San Francisco firm is now known as Bonhams & Butterfields.

John Gunn and Cynthia Fry Gunn.

Robert Fountain created opulent Indian-inspired décor with tablecloths, chairs covers and custom made tapestries in rich, warm hues of red, maroon, and gold. Each table setting for a lavish feast, catered by Paula Leduc, was set with gold-rimmed glasses.

Centerpieces of purple and green artichokes, quince, grapes, plums, figs, and pomegranates nestled enticingly among aromatic mango and crimson calla lilies, burgundy sweet William and black dahlias.

Katie Jarman, co-chair of the 2005 Opera Ball, said, “A balmy night in San Francisco always puts opening night opera goers in a wonderful mood. The opulence of the tent with its columns, lush fabrics, low lighting and scantily-clad guards just added to an already high energy evening.”

Seen dancing to Bill Hopkins Rock’n Orchestra was Cheryl and Ralph’s daughter Ashley Baxter, who was celebrating her 10th birthday. How will her parents ever top this one?

Opera patrons attending included Cathie Johnson, Robert Mailer Anderson with Nicola Miner in Balenciaga, Leslie Hume, Mr. and Mrs. Bandel Carano, Molly and James Crownover, Lynne Edminster and Brian Atwood, Barlow Ferguson, Ann and Gordon Getty, and Susie and Pat McBaine.

Also there to support were Gretchen Kimball, Bob and Maura Morey, Lonna Wais, Shariq Yosufzai, Claude and Katie Jarman, Judith and John Renard, Nion Tucker McEvoy, Jim and Penny Coulter, Barbara Brown, Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis and Markos Kounalakis, Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf and his wife Ruth, Marshall and Deborah Wais, and Steven McClellan and Elizabeth Barlow.

Shell and Craig Cardon, and Charlot and Gregory Malin.

Donna and Chuck Huggins.

Along with Joy Venturini Bianchi, Brandt Hooker, Dr. Barry Barron and Connie Goodrich Barron, Chuck and Donna Huggins, Chandra and Robert Friese, Linda Kempner and Vera Carpeneti, and New Yorkers Adelina Wong Ettelson, Christine Cachot Williams, and William Ettelson.

As well as former SF mayor Willie Brown, Robin Collins in Valentino, Phoebe Cowles, Chal de Guigne, Christine de Limur, Gail De Martini, Tom Kravis, Bernie Hagan, Lois Lehrman, Charlot and Gregory Malin, Dr. Alan Malouf, Susan and Bill Oberndorf, Robyn Paret, Paul Pelosi, Jennifer and Richard Smith, and Lisa Stevens-Gallo.

Rounding out the SRO crowd: philanthropists Diana and Tad Taube (heads of the Koret foundation), Jim Schneider and Barbara Brookins-Schneider in a Chinese-inspired Yves St. Laurent, Afsaneh Akhtari in Ungaro, Victor Thomas, whose father was opera singer Jess Thomas, Dr. Melina Jampolis, Kimberly Bakker in vintage McFadden, Craig Cardon with his wife Shell, in vintage Bill Blass, Nicolo and Kimberly Bini in from their new home in LA, and stunning Amber Marie Bently in a lime green Ungaro.

Jim Schneider and Barbara Brookins-Schneider.

Elizabeth and Kip Thieriot.

Pitch Johnson, Linda Kemper, and David Gockley

Serge Sorokko watches wife Tatiana, a former model in Ralph Rucci.

Lucy and John Buchanan, de Young Museum director.

Nicole Miner and Robert Mailer Anderson (on right) with friends.

Joy Venturini Bianchi and Brandt Hooker.

Sally Debenham in Oscar de la Renta and John Capizzi.

Former Mayor Willie Brown and Sonya Molodetskaya.

Amber Marie Bently in Ungaro.

Gretchen and Howard Leach, former Ambassador to France.

Vera Carpeneti and Edgar Stone.

Robert Shwarts and Joni Binder in Carolina Herrera.

Claude and Katie Jarman.

Mayor Gavin Newsom and Jennifer Siebel in Maggie Norris.

Adrianna Pope Sullivan and Bobby Sullivan.

Strike a pose.

Exotic dancers.

Jennifer Siebel, Kimberly Bini, and Kimberly Bakker.

Francis Barlow, Joan Traitel, and Genelle Relfe.

Sobia Shaikh.

Lonna Weiss and Dennis Modrich.

Bobo Fredricki and Toni Wolfson.

Dennis Flynn and Afasneh Akhtari.

Andreas Rippel, Fariba Rezvani, Adelina Ettelman, and Jorge Maumer.

Lizette Bruckstein and Jason Sloan.

Heide Betz and Scotty Morris.

George and Charlotte Shultz.

Ed and Rosemary Baker.

David Gockley, Jeannik Littlefield, and Sandy and Jacques Littlefield.

Enjoying the terrace with the view of City Hall.

Amber Marie and Christopher Bently.

Michael and Susan Kulick admire the Lexus, a sponsor.

Karen Caldwell.

Dr. Alan Malouf.

Maria Quiros, Vaughn Mulder, and Dr. Melina Jampolis.

Costume designer Carrie Robbins and Douglas Schmidt, set designer.

Dolly Chammas and Isha Abdullah.

Marybeth LaMotte and Cheryl Baxter.

Clara Shayevich.

Birthday boy Bernard Osher with Texan Joan Shnitzer.

Decor by Robert Fountain.

Dr. Gunther Haller and Lyhn, in Oscar.


Meanwhile, across the street under the gilded dome of City Hall, another sold-out event rocked the house. Co-chairs Michelle Marie Robertson and Sean Cullen presented Bravo! Club’s 16th annual black-tie gala for over 450 people.

Bravo’s after party at City Hall.

To bring to life the Golden Hollywood Ball theme, Hartmann Studios masterfully re-created Cecil B. DeMille’s version of Samson and Delilah. I stopped by after my party finished, only to find this party still going strong. The dance floor was packed and pulsing with the music of The Fundamentals.

Bravo Party – Roberta Economidis.

Thomas Banks and Kristen Weiers.

Christina and Isabela Robinson.

Chris Bergers, Kelly Grimes, and Travis Rogers.

Enjoying the Bravo Party.

Heading home after a long night.

Bravo’s younger set dance the night away.


A lucky few continued the festivities with a fabulous after party-party at Isha and Asim Abdullah’s penthouse where we sipped champagne into the wees. Such scenery and all that understated Euro-charm – it would have made Delilah jealous all over again.

Midnight at the Abdullah’s, Lonna Weiss and Dennis Modrich.

Dr. Gunther and Lyhn Haller in Ocsar.

Ken Monnens, Maria Manetti Farrow, Marybeth LaMotte, and Kimberly Bakker.

Jorge Maumer with Dolly and George Chammas.

Joel Goodrich and Christina de Limur.

Justin Fichelson and Fariba Rezvani.

Bringin’ sexy back.

Yes, he wore it to the opera – John Ocker, Marybeth LaMotte, and Diane Wynne.


Several weeks later, the San Francisco Giants’ COO Larry Baer and Gockley in partnership presented to the community the Opera in the Ballpark combining high art with hot dogs, peanuts, and crackerjacks.

More than 5,000 fans flocked to the free HD broadcast of Samson and Delilah on the 103ft. wide Mitsubishi Electric Diamond Vision video scoreboard at the AT&T Park. Could this be a new era for Opera?


Photographs by Drew Altizer and Jeanne Lawrence.

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