San Francisco Social Diary: 86th Opera Gala Opening

Opening Night at the Opera.


If there was an unofficial theme to the San Francisco Opera’s season opening it was surely glam, glam, glam. There were numerous reasons to celebrate, all of which seemed to inspire guests to glam it up.

First, there was an entire weekend of events: the Opera Guild’s Opera Ball and Bravo! Club’s Opening Night Gala on Friday, followed by the annual Opera in Park (Golden Gate Park) on Sunday.

Cynthia and John Gunn.

Second, was the announcement one week later that devotees John A. and Cynthia Gunn donated more than $40 million to the Opera—the largest single gift in the Opera’s 85-year history.

By comparison, the largest individual gift to New York’s Metropolitan Opera was $25 million from billionaires Sid and Mercedes Bass in 2006.

The SF Opera’s gala is a perennial sellout; the War Memorial Opera House seats 3,000, which says a lot about the city’s passion for the art form.

Such a grand occasion tends to bring back old world glamour and the ladies went all out with jewels, up-dos and ball gowns. A few of the men even waxed nostalgic, donning traditional white tie. I must say, they looked dashing.

That Friday afternoon the Saks makeup counter was booked solid with gals getting all done up by the make-up artists while chatting away about the big night. All that was missing was a little bubbly—perhaps Saks would consider providing a little pre-gala champagne next year?

Temperatures hovered near 90 that day so the Opera Committee co-chairs Eve Wertsch and Toni Wolfson decided to take advantage of the warm night and moved the pre-performance cocktail reception outside to the Carriage Entrance.

Comfortable lounges surrounded by sycamore trees created the feel of a garden party. The men loved being outside, although some of the woman fretted that the breeze might undo their dos. But how often does fickle San Francisco weather cooperate anyway?

Patsy Pope and pianist Van Cliburn.

At 5 pm the paparazzi, TV cameras and press were lined up to watch the fashion parade pass through the gilt wrought iron gates. The women who glammed it up seemed to love the attention the most.

Patsy Pope garnered her share of attention with those incredible blue eyes and her escort, longtime friend and award-winning pianist Van Cliburn, who flew in from Texas.

Patsy’s daughter, Adrianna Sullivan, recalled the glamorous white-tie operas of the past, when her mother took her to opening night and the late grand dame Eleanor de Guigne invited everyone to the bar at L’Etoile (formerly on Nob Hill) for buckets of Perrier Jouet.

“How often do you get to wear a real ball gown, so I designed my own,” exclaimed Wolfson. And indeed she looked sensational.

Seen enjoying themselves at the reception were General Director David Gockley chatting with Mayor Gavin Newsom and honorary chairs Cynthia Fry Gunn, Jeannik Littlefield, and Dede Wilsey.

Ravishing in her Ralph Rucci ensemble, Maria Manetti Farrow said, “David Gockley is successful in bringing back glamour to the opera.” Tatiana Sorokko also wore Rucci, a frothy beige creation.

Happily chatting were Guild President Teresa Medearis, Cathie and Franklin T. Johnson, Jr., Board President George Hume and wife Leslie, major sponsor Wells Fargo’s President John Stempf, Bank of America’s Janet Lamkin, Eleni Tsakopuoulos-Kounalakis and Markos Kounalakis and four-time Olympic gold medal sprinter Michael Johnson.

Rosalina and Martin Lydster.

Sobia and Nadir Shaikh.

James Seltzer and Inessa Obenhuber.

Not all the talk was about opera. Dr. Melina Jampolis’ entourage discussed the Beijing Olympics and how the in-depth coverage changed people’s impression of modern China.

During the two-hour cocktail reception, guests sampled hors d’oeuvres supplied by McCall Caterers, including succulent baby lamb chops sliced right off the rack. But even two hours wasn’t time enough to see and be seen, and the crowd reluctantly headed in after the chimes rang.

Guild President Teresa Medearis at Grand Lobby.

Once everyone was settled in their seats it was announced that this was the last season for Scottish Maestro Donald Runnicles, music director since 1992. He is moving on to become General Music Director of the Deutsche Opera Berlin and Chief Conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony.

Italian conductor Nicola Luisotti, 45, will be the new music director, assuming the role for the 2009-10 season.

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky headlined the evening’s performance of Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra, which also featured Barbara Frittoli making her company debut as Amelia Grimaldi, the Doge’s daughter. Ukrainian bass Vitalij Kowaljow and tenor Marcus Haddock rounded out the cast.

Heading off to the opera ball and dinner afterwards, I overheard the comment, “The opera was very enjoyable … and I didn’t see anyone sleeping.”

The post-opera dinner and ball was held in the Pavilion tent, which event designer Stanlee Gatti had masterfully transformed into an Italian Renaissance Palazzo.

Instead of the usual rounds, long narrow tables with 10 seats each lined the length of the room. Personally, I find this arrangement preferable, as you can talk with your neighbors to the left, the right and across.

Dede Wilsey poses in the garden.

Garlands of intertwined tangerines and herbs—in the style of 15th-century Renaissance artist Della Robbia—were draped over the tables. With the balmy weather and the warm and colorful room, it was easy to imagine we really were in sunny Italy.

The Grand Benefactors deserve their credit too. They were Jacques and Sandy Littlefield, Ed Littlefield with Laura Defreyne and Denise Sobel—the children of Jeannik Littlefield, who herself donated $35 million to the Opera in 2006.

Other grand benefactors were Dawn Yates Black, Athena and Timothy Blackburn, Ann and Gordon Getty, Mimi and Peter Haas Fund, Cathy MacNaughton, Steven Menzies, Theodore and Rose Rosenberg, John D. Rosin, and the Honorable and Mrs. George P. Shultz.

Todd and Katie Traina, Dede Wilsey, and John Traina.

Guests mingling in friont of City Hall.

The ball supper was superb—probably one of the best I’ve tasted at a charity gala in a long time. The evening got rolling with Russian malossol sturgeon caviar on truffle custard accompanied by a shot of sponsor’s Grey Goose Vodka.

This was followed by a demi of cauliflower vichyssoise beautifully presented and sipped through a straw and a salad of fresh asparagus.

The main course was squab in two preparations: roast breast and leg confit with Marsala jus that was to die for. As committee member Linda Elliot Zider said, “The men loved it…their plates were empty.”

During dinner Gatti surprised writer/producer Robert Mailer Anderson with a sparkler-topped cake to celebrate his 40th birthday.

Italian Renaissance Palazzo.

Others seen enjoying themselves were Crown Princess Katherine and Crown Prince Alexander of Yugoslavia, who were guests of Elizabeth Thieriot, Ed Conlon with wife Elisa Stephens, James and Doreen Woo Ho, Lucy and John Buchanan, Edith and Joe Tobin, Phil Bronstein, Cricket and Alan Jones, Barbara and Dick Rosenberg, Inessa Obenhuber with Jim Seltzer, Olivia Decker, Claudia and Ward H. Bushee, the new editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, and conductor Constantine Oberlian of the Moscow Chamber Orchestra.

The Richard Olsen Orchestra kept the dance floor packed so it was not a Dancing with the Stars kind of night. Amid the crowd I noticed Charlotte Shultz wearing an Oscar de la Renta with so many layers of ruffles that she literally had to hold the skirt up to dance.

And who couldn’t help but notice Dede Wilsey, sponsor of the Opening Weekend, dancing in her sapphire blue Oscar gown with strand upon strand of sapphires draping her neck—so many we lost count.

Bravo! Club gyrates at City Hall.

The ball closed at 1 am—which is late for this crowd. But as we left we could hear the music blaring from City Hall where the Bravo! Club party, attended by the young professionals, was still rocking to the music of The Fundamentals.

Co-chaired by Princess Fati Farmanfarmaian and Adam Bier, the theme was Il Porto Antico. Dominic Phillips turned the space into an ancient port quarter of Genoa for cocktails and into a Genovese palazzo for the after dinner and party catered by Paula Le Duc.

Revelers Melissa Boxer Zill, Roberta Economidis and Prince Rudolf Kniase Melikoff with Roma Chugani were seen dancing past the 2 am curfew, proving without a doubt that opening night was a big, glamorous hit.

Paul Pelosi and Nancy Pelosi.

Former Mayor Willie Brown.

Chair Toni Wolfson and Bob Federighi.

Chair Eve and Wallace Wertsch.

Bobby and Adrianna Pope.

Scott Sollers and Linda Zider.

Crown Prince Alexander II of and Crown Princess Katherine of Yugoslavia.

Melina Jampolis and Victor Thomas.

Maria Manetti Farrow.

Kevin Hill with Chandra and Bob Friese.

Harvey and Gail Glasser.

Eleni Kounalakis Tsakopoulos and Markos Kounalakis.

Malcolm and Therese Post.

Pamela Joyner.

Gerald and Bobbie-Vee Cooney with David Gockley.

Tony and Sandra Go.

Karen Caldwell.

Sandy Mandel.

Daniel and Jan Ellis.

Denise Sobel, Jeannik Littlefield, Ed Littlefield, and Laura Defreyne.

Barney and Lexie Ng.

Carla and Christopher Zuber.

Virginia Lukkes and Michael Gompertz.

Deepa Pakianathan.

Princess Fati Farmanfarmaian and Adam Arthur Bier.

Cathie and Pitch Johnson.

Elizabeth Funk and Brandt Hooker.

Cynthia Shroeder and Lois Lehrman.

Rosemary and Ed Baker.

Amber Marie and Christopher Bently.

Van Cliburn, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, and Constantine Oberlian.

Claudia and Ward H. Bushee.

Pamala and Ted Deikel.

Stanlee Gatti with a birthday surprise.


Photographs by Drew Altizer and Jeanne Lawrence.

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