San Francisco Social Diary: Opera Opening 2010

Opening Night of the San Francisco Opera is always grand, and this year’s Aida was especially so. Egyptians “gods” greeted bejeweled and begowned guests for the Opera Gala dinners at City Hall.


Drama and intrigue, a fascinating and attractive cast of characters, a spectacular setting, and breathtaking costumes: the opening night of the San Francisco Opera’s 88th season had it all. And there was more of it onstage—plus singing!

Opera General Director David Gockley and Musical Director Nicola Luisotti’s pull-out-the-stops production of Verdi’s Aida was matched in crowd appeal and sheer excitement by the evening’s festivities: the Opera Guild Ball and the Bravo! Club Gala for the younger set at City Hall.


Egyptians gods stood guard at the door to City Hall, including Anubis, the jackal-headed god. Could some of them be Secret Service agents in disguise, there to guard Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was among the guests?

Billed as “Black or White Tie,” we were greeted by Egyptian-costumed guards (shirtless and well-toned, remember this is California). Luckily for them, the night was unusually balmy.


Traditionally, the patrons—the big donors—dined in a tent next to the Opera House and the BRAVO! Club crowd supped in City Hall. The last two years, the cost-conscious committee held both dinners in City Hall, although in separate locations. And dinner was before, rather than after, the performance. For most, this was a welcomed change.

The successful chairpersons, Charlot Malin and Mary Poland did their homework and enticed more than double the number of corporations to participate this year. (Mary had spent three weeks in Egypt in January with her husband, Bill, looking for inspiration for the Egyptian theme.)

Jon Finck, the public relations man for the Opera, summed up their results: “King Tut would be jealous.”

Willie Brown and Sonya Molodetskaya with Charlotte and George Shultz.

Marybeth La Motte interviews former Mayor Willie Brown for her premiere of Red Carpet Bay Area on KRON4.

Opera Opening Night Chairs: Anjelika Koulebakina (Bravo!), Mary Poland (Opera Guild), event designer Bronson VanWyck, Linda Kemper with General Director David Gockley, Charlot Malin (Opera Guild), and Jane Burkhard (Bravo).

Charlot Malin, Opera Guild Ball Co-Chair. Lily Samii designed Egyptian-themed gowns for ball co-chairs Charlot and Mary. Norwegian-born Charlot’s—inspired by the Nile—was an aquamarine blue sheath that showed off her stunning blue eyes.

Mary Poland, Opera Guild Ball Co-Chair. Mary’s gown (Lily Samii) suggested the Sun God. Its coral beads and the palette of yellows and golds complemented her golden hair and skin and warm personality.

The evening was designed by New Yorker Bronson Van Wyck of (the event planner for Sean “Diddy” Combs’ recent 40th birthday party). McCall Caterers created the elegant menu.


The Opera season opening is a major fashion event, and you can even vote for the Top Five Gown Poll of the evening online at, the website of the San Francisco Chronicle. Word has it there’s a lot of behind-the-scene lobbying as the ladies back their favorites!

There were five nominees: In alphabetic order: Amber Marie Bently, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Deepa Pakianthan, Larissa Roesch, and Karen Sutherland.

The winner was Deepa Pakianthan, who loves fashion, and wore a spectacular gown designed by Zuhair Murad. She was also a runner-up for the best gown at the Symphony Opening in a Michael Kors.

Best Gown Winner: Venture Capitalist Deepa Pakianathan in a billowing silk gown, with hand-screened scenes of London, by Beirut designer Zuhair Murad.

Best Gown Nominee: Larissa Roesch wore a blue gown designed by Azadeh. She’s from Berkeley across the Bay.

Best Gown Nominee: Karen Sutherland—whom you may know as Karen Caufield, former wife of VC Frank Caufield—in a black extravaganza by Marchesa.

Best Gown Nominee Amber Marie Bently’s dress, designed by an art student, Fiuka, incorporated LED lighting. Just back from Burning Man, Amber was still glowing.

Best Gown Nominee: Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Mayor Gavin Newsom’s wife, looked Hollywood-glamorous in an emerald green design by Karen Caldwell, a new Bay-area favorite.


The Opera opening, like the Oscars, has its equivalent of the eye-popping red carpet parade. I was wowed by the dresses—and the ladies who wore them so brilliantly.

I was once again impressed by how daring the Californians are about wearing color and how right it was for the Egyptian theme (I was in my Michal Kors—NY black, of course).

BRAVO! President Marie Carr noted, “In casual San Francisco, it’s lovely to see everyone dressed to the nines.”

“They told me to dress glitzy. This was my glitziest,” said Barbara-Brookins Schneider, in vintage Bob Mackie.

At 5:00 p.m., champagne and Grey Goose cocktails were passed in the North Light Court for the patron reception. (That’s so early to look glamorous, and the ladies must have started at noon to be red-carpet ready).

Some of the familiar fashionistas missed this big night. Pamela Joyner, Angelique Griepp, and Elizabeth Touw, and a few others were in New York for Fashion Week and Fashion Night Out.

More than the usual number of gents came in white tie. Have we spotted a trend? I hope so. Event designer Riccardo Benavides opined, “A man should wear only tails to the opera opening. It’s the one time we can be very sophisticated and it ups the glamour quotient.”

Maria and John Pitcairn with British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes, who designed the sets and costumes for Aida.


During the reception, I chatted with John and Cynthia Gunn, who in 2008 donated more than $40 million to the opera—the largest single gift ever. “We haven’t run out of money yet,” he jested.

At my dinner table, Jack Calhoun, the youthful-looking president of Banana Republic, summed it up: “If you’ve never attended an opera, this is the one to see,” he said. It’s got everything: spectacle, story, music…and an elephant.

Wilkes Bashford, Jeanne Lawrence, and Opera General Director David Gockley.

Generous Opera Patrons Cynthia and John Gunn with Nancy and Joachim Bechtle.

Gretchen and Howard Leach (former Ambassador to France) with Barbara Brookins Schneider and Jim Schneider.

Opening Weekend Grand Sponsor Dede Wilsey with John Traina.

Bob and Chandra Friese, Ted and Pamala Deikel, and Patricia and Charles Sprincin.

Jack Calhoun, Lena Hwang, Trent Norris, and Robert Frank.

Leon and Sallie Huntting fit right into the Egyptian theme.

Actress Rita Moreno will star as herself in a one-woman show at the Berkeley Repertory Theater in the spring.

Barbara Brown.

Roberta Sherman wore a vintage Lanvin (with the original label) she snatched up because its brilliant colors were perfect for the occasion.

Daniel Diaz and Maria Manetti Farrow.

Robert Mailer Anderson and Nicola Miner.

Isha and Asim Abdullah.

Fashion Designer Karen Caldwell, Jane Mudge, events designer J. Riccardo Benavides, and Rosemary Baker
(Karen Caldwell design).

George Drysdale, Kelly Grimes, and Joel Goodrich.

Ralph and Cheryl Baxter (Co-Chair Opera Guild Ball 2007).

Tore and Turid Diskerud (Charlot’s parents) with Charlot and Gregory Malin.

Jeanne Lawrence and Wilkes Bashford.

Guillaume Orliac and Linda Zider, wearing a gown by New York fashion designer Shanon McLean.

Richard Sablatura and Donna Sachet.

Carrie Goodman, Tad and Dianne Taub, and Nicole Curran.

Bobby and Adrianna Pope Sullivan.

Nob Hill Gazette publisher Lois Lehrman and Jorge Maumer.

Mark and Teresa Medearis, former Opera Guild President.

Kirsten Strobel and Gina Milano of Le Club Supper Club.

Christopher and Carla Zuber with Trish and Charlie Loucks.

Wallace and Eve Wertsch (Co-Chair Opera Guild Ball 2008).

Cynthia Snorf Zak and Richard Livermore.

Bravo! Club members Cristina Robinson, Anastasia Herold, Chandra Rigg, Robin Starbuck Farmanfarmaian, Sarah Erdman, and Jane Burkhard.

Dede Wilsey and John Traina rush in for the seated dinner.

An even bolder break with tradition was to serve dinner before rather than after the performance, a decision, that was applauded by the majority. For years, health-conscious Californians—and especially the men—complained about the late dinner at 11 p.m.

Both groups seemed to welcome the merger of the Opera Guild and Bravo! Club dinner at City Hall. Patrons enjoyed the company of the vibrant, attractive younger set and the latter welcomed an opportunity to mingle with the cities’ movers and shakers and members of the old guard.

Jennifer Siebel Newsom, wife of Mayor Gavin Newsom, is such an asset and makes a point to support community events.

Goretti Lo Lui.

Guests hurried off for the 8pm curtain call.

Policemen directed traffic so opera lovers could cross Van Ness safely.

People-watching all night.

Suzanne Tucker and Tim Marks.

Bravo! Club President Marie Carr won a contest on Facebook for best gown. She drew admiring glances in this shimmering form-
fitting gown.

Sobia and Nadir Shaikh with Virginia and Alvin Ziegler.


Verdi’s masterpiece premiered in Cairo in 1871 and at La Scala 1872, and was first performed in SF in 1925.

In 1981, there was a one-night-only performance with Leontyne Price as Aida and Luciano Pavarotti as Radames, torn between love of country and love of one another. Don’t we all wish we’d been there?!

A souvenir of the night. When I enter the grand foyer of the beaux-arts War Memorial Opera House I always feel as if I’m going to be transported into another world. On premiere night of Aida, I truly

Marcello Giordani and Hao Jiang Tian (Ramfis) who made his debut in Amy Tan’s The Bonesetter’s Daughter.


Exotic British fashion designer Zandra Rhodes created the costumes and sets. With her bright pink Dutch boy bob—her trademark look for 40 years—she was easy to pick out in the crowd.

Known for her originality and theatricality, she’s represented in London’s textile museum by an archive of her fashion and fabric designs.

“A true professional,” Opera Director Gockley says, “and a treat to work with.” I missed the party Wilkes Bashford threw for her at his eponymous store in May—I was in Shanghai at the time—but I hear it was a big success. “She’s a terrific businesswoman, a rarity in this world of temperamental designers,” he said.

The set looked rich, with high priests floating across the stage wearing pleated gold lame hoop skirts, and gold rained onto the stage in one celebratory scene.

Italian soprano Micaela Carosi as Aida. That “Eye of Horus” was watching from everywhere: onstage and from the garlands hung from the grand tier boxes; I was beginning to get nervous being so watched.

The elephant floated onstage with gigantic ears of brilliant blue and gold fabric to the enthusiastic applause from the audience.

Dolora Zajick (Amneris), Marcello Giordani (Radames), and Christian Van Horn (King of Egypt).

For the opera, Zandra chose a palette of golds and blues—sapphire, aqua, teal, every shade imaginable—and she mixed glitz and gauze, the glamorous and the gossamer. (All this reminded me that it’s time to get my 1980’s Zandra Rhodes gowns out of storage. Now they qualify as “vintage.”)

My Shanghai readers will understand when I say Zandra can be compared to Chinese fashion designer Han Feng, who has created costumes for operas including the Metropolitan’s Madame Butterfly, the San Francisco Opera’s Bonesetter’s Daughter, and even the movie Karate Kid.

During intermission, Alan Malouf’s “B” box (David Gockley has “A” box) was packed with drop-ins, who indulged on caviar and champagne. You can’t miss him if you’re in line for the ladies’ room. (Some of us spent the whole intermission on that line—can’t they do something?)

Judy Ney, Alan Malouf, and Denise Hale supped afterward at Jardinière; his second dinner.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Paul Pelosi.

Joe and Edith Tobin with Paul Pelosi.

Dorothy and Ken Paige.

Timothy and Athena Blackburn.

Jim Schneider, Cynthia Schreuder, Karen Sutherland, Barbara Brookins Schneider, and Gary Tramiel.


Opera patron Maria Manetti Farrow knows the cast doesn’t eat until after a performance. She tracked them down where they were dining—on the balcony overlooking the rotunda.

“For me, the most exciting moment is to congratulate the artists on their performances. I want to pay homage to them. They sacrifice their life to lift our soul and our spirit,” she said. She put all of our feelings into words.

After the drama and tragic ending of Aida, we all needed some uplifting, so we rushed back to City Hall for some dancing and fun!

Bravo! Club Members.

Sustained by a bountiful selection of desserts, drinks by SKYY Vodka, and the music of DJ Aykut and a live band, they kept the dance floor crowded.

Bob Federighi and Toni Wolfson (Co-Chair Opera Guild Ball 2008).

Phil Pemberton with wife Deepa Pakianathan.

Christopher Caen and Denise Zanze.

Claude and Katie Jarman (former Opera Guild Co-Chair) with Bill and Marilyn Timoney (former Opera Guild President).

Bandel and Paula Carano.

Cast dinner afterward: Musical Director Nicola Luisotti, mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick (Amneris), and General
Director David Gockley.

Soprano Micaela Carosi (Aida), Daniel Diaz, Maria Manetti Farrow, Marco Vratogna (Amonasro), and Jeanne Lawrence.

Cast dinner at midnight on the balcony of City Hall.

Adrianna Sullivan whirls away.

The view of the majestic City Hall as the last guest headed home late, well after 2am.


The San Francisco Opera will be performing Richard Wagner’s masterpiece, Ring of the Nibelung, starting June 14, 2011. If you want tickets, you’d better buy them now. I was fascinated to learn that the Ring is being performed in Shanghai in September and my New York friends David Beer, Marife Hernandez, and Joe Bell are attending.


Photographs by Drew Altizer, Jeanne Lawrence, and Cory Weaver.

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