San Francisco Social Diary: San Francisco Opera Opens with Bellini’s Norma

The 2014 San Francisco Opera Gala kicked off the season with Bellini’s dramatic bel canto masterpiece, Norma.

SAN FRANCISCO – The fall philanthropic, social, and cultural season begins here right after Labor Day. It’s the busiest week in the city, with the opening night of the Symphony and the Opera.

The Opera’s highly anticipated opening night event is possibly one of the grandest in the world, a not-to-be-missed mix of music and drama, glamour and excitement.

Among this season’s San Francisco Opera performances, at the War Memorial Opera house, are Tosca, Cinderella, La Bohème, and Partenope.

Presented by the Opera Guild, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year, the Guild takes its mission seriously and last year provided more than $750,000 to help educate more than 60,000 students in 200 schools across the Bay Area.

Opera Guild President Karen Kubin, Opera Association President Keith Geeslin, Opera Ball Co-Chair Teresa Medearis, Grand Benefactor Mark Medearis, Opera Ball Co-Chair Cynthia Schreuder, and Ovadia Kalev.

Opera General Director David Gockley with future Opera Gala (2015) Co-Chairs Karen Kubin and Jane Mudge, who I’m sure are already imaging some fabulous themes.

Good-looking Roman Legionnaires welcomed guests at the grand staircase in the City Hall Rotunda, a fine opening to a memorable evening created by event designer Riccardo Benavides of Ideas.

Guest Sonja Molodetskaya showed off her Vasily Vein couture gown for the camera.


The San Francisco Opera launched its 92nd season with Vincenzo Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece, Norma, which premiered at La Scala in 1831. It’s “one of the hardest scores in the world,” says Italian-born SFO Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

The 2014 Opera Gala theme was “Passione,” exemplified by Norma’s tragic tale of love and betrayal.

The role of Norma, considered one of the most difficult soprano repertoires, is being performed by Sondra Radvanovsky.


Do I go to New York’s Fashion Week or the San Francisco Opera opening? It’s a quandary every September, and this year I chose the opera: it’s a grand affair and quite the fashion show too.

The first “act” was the promenade of glamorously dressed women at City Hall. The fashionistas displayed their inner divas, as usual, since the gala is one of the biggest social events of the city.

Leonard Eber and Diane Rubin, former President of the Opera Guild and Opera Ball chair 2012.

Stephanie Lawrence and Jeanne Lawrence.

Afsaneh Akhtari in Oscar de la Renta.

Komal Shah in Oscar de la Renta, with Gaurav Garg.

Bill and Sako Fisher, President of the San Francisco Symphony. With the Symphony Opening having been held two days earlier, tonight she could relax.

Bulgari General Manager Daniel Diaz with Barbara Brown, Co-Chair of the 2014 League to Save Lake Tahoe Fashion Show & Luncheon, wearing Oscar de la Renta.

Jorge Maumer and Brenda Zarate.


Designer ball gowns were worn in abundance, by well-known local and international designers such as Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Valentino, and local designers Azadeh, Karen Caldwell, and Lily Samii, to name a few.

The paparazzi were on hand to photograph all the gorgeous garments.

Local journalists were out in full force, eager to know what designers the fashionable attendees were wearing.

Oscar de la Renta’s New York-based Boaz Mazor, here with Dede Wilsey and Trevor Traina, must have been delighted to see so many Oscars in the crowd!

All the ladies are quite happy to pose in their gorgeous and costly gowns, to get the most from their one-time investment. (Since the pictures are posted on the internet, the gowns have to be retired after just one showing!)

Deepa Pakianathan, looking every bit the gladiator goddess in Andrew Gn, reflected the gold of the night.

Keith Geeslin, President of the Opera Association, with his wife Priscilla.

Always elegant SF Ballet Principal dancer Yuan Yuan Tan, Joy Venturini Bianchi, and the evening’s event designer, Riccardo Benavides of Ideas.

Cynthia Gunn and Board member John Gunn made one of the largest donations to the opera in the US.

Daniel Girard and his wife Ann Girard, former President of the Opera Guild.

George Shultz, former Secretary of State under President Reagan, with his wife Charlotte Shultz, California Chief of Protocol.

Former mayor Willie Brown with Sonya Molodetskaya, who loves dressing extravagantly.

Tanya Powell in Vera Wang, Shelley Gordon, and designer Karen Caldwell, who designed many of the gowns this night.

Gretchen de Baubigny, Dagmar Dolby, Natasha Dolby, and David Dolby.

Red Carpet Bay Area contributor Marybeth La Motte said, “I try to pick the top ten, but there are so many fabulous gowns that it’s impossible to cover them all.”

Red Carpet Bay Area’s Marybeth LaMotte, Ann Girard, and Anne Marie Massocca.

Oran and Maryam Muduroglu with Charlot and Gregory Malin.

Jack Calhoun, Barbara Brookins-Schneider, and Trent Norris. Brookins-Schneider, in Bob Mackie, attended both the sold-out Symphony and Opera openings.

Music patrons Athena and Timothy Blackburn, a member of the Opera Board of Directors.

Susan and Frank Dunlevy, who had just returned from summering in East Hampton.

Joy Venturini Bianchi made a wild statement in zebra sequined Tom Ford, complete with a “zebra mane” cascading down the back, which she snatched up as soon as she saw it on the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

Naturally, ubiquitous Bay Area society and corporate photographer Drew Altizer, who makes us all look good, was capturing the evening.


Personally, I’ve always felt the opera audience is part of the set too. Opera is grand and dramatic, so dressing the part is a way to show respect and appreciation for the artists involved. It adds sparkle to the atmosphere—and it’s fun, too.

The accomplished San Francisco Opera orchestra, to whom we owe so much for these spectacular evenings of opera.

Nicola Luisotti conducted brilliantly and was ably supported by the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.


Some 800 fans had the stamina to enjoy all the Opening Night festivities: a Champagne reception in the Rotunda of City Hall, a sit-down dinner, the opera itself, and a post-performance bash that went on until the wee hours.

Opera Ball Co-Chair Teresa Medearis, a prior Opera ball co-chair (2012) and president of the Opera Guild from 2006–2008, with her husband Mark Medearis.

Opera ball co-chair Cynthia Schreuder, who serves on the boards of both the SF Opera Guild and the SF Symphony League, in midnight blue Oscar de la Renta, with Ovadia Kalev.

Opera board member Dede Wilsey was the Grand Sponsor of Opening Weekend and the annual free “Opera in the Park” concert in Golden Gate Park on Sunday.

Representative Nancy Pelosi and her husband Paul Pelosi.

Some guests arrived at precisely 5 p.m. for the start of the Opera Ball Champagne hour, not wanting to miss a moment of the see-and-be-seen event and to catch up with friends after summer vacation.

For something different, cocktails this year were served in the dramatic Rotunda, where guest could mix and mingle and sip Roederer Estate Brut champagne. What, no Bellinis for Bellini?

Jorge Maumer, in a Tom Ford dinner jacket, with Carolyn Chandler, in a black floral Oscar de la Renta, who attended both the Symphony and Opera opening.

Event designer Riccardo Benavides, Marti McMahon, and Stephan Diamond.

Patrick Devin, Karen Caldwell, Lisa Grotts, and Mark Rhoades.

De Young Museum Director Colin Bailey (formerly of the Frick), Leslie Berriman, and Nion McEvoy, of Chronicle books.

Stephanie Lawrence and Jeanne Lawrence.

David and Mary Beth Shimmon.

Bandel and Paula Carano, who loves ball gowns and wore the longest train of the night.

Linda Kemper and Opera General Director David Gockley.

Daniel Diaz, Barbara Brown, and Riccardo Benavides.

Linle Froeb, who in 1991 founded the Bravo! Club for younger opera fans, and her husband James Froeb.

Steve and Anita Westly.


Too soon, it seemed, it was time to head to the East and West Courts for the sit-down dinner.

McCalls Catering & Events designed a seasonal menu: heirloom tomato salad, truffled filet of beef, and Chianti poached pears.

A lavish Italian themed sit-down dinner was served in the two wings, and the opulent flower arrangements were just high enough to allow conversation across the round tables.

Sorensen, Gian-Jacque Bienaime, and Carolyn Chang, in Nini Ricci.

Fati Farmanfarmaian, Joel Goodrich, and Clara Shayevich, in a Karen Caldwell couture gown.

Susan Tamagni with Michael and Alison Mauze.


Fortunately, police halted traffic on Van Ness Avenue, so guests could cross safely to the War Memorial for the opera; fortunately, too, the weather was balmy and not overcast, so no wraps or umbrellas were necessary.

The opera is performed in the beaux-art War Memorial Opera House (1931).

Cynthia and Dick Livermore with Linda Zider.

Tanum Davis and Sean Bowen.

Nob Hill Gazette Publisher Lois Lehrman, who gave so many their start in writing (including me!), with Frank D’Ambrosio.

Phil Pemberton and Deepa Pakianathan.

Maria Manetti Shrem, Jan Shrem, and friend.

Couture collector Christine Suppes, wearing Rodarte, and James Krohn.


When we arrived in the grand Opera House foyer, some of the crowd was already imbibing Champagne, and you could feel excitement in the air.

Even filled with 3,000 opera aficionados, the shimmering golden auditorium felt intimate.

Big opera supporters, the Getty family was out in full force: Billy, Ann, Gordon, and Vanessa Getty.

Bob Friese and Chandra Friese, in Marchesa.

Heidi Betz and Scotty Morris.

Afsaneh Akhtari with her daughter Jazmin Roper.

Board member Karen Richardson and John Rubenstein.

Alex Chases with Victoria Raiser.


This new production of Norma was conceived and directed by Kevin Newbury, with sets by David Korins and costumes by Jessica Jahn.

Norma is considered Bellini’s bel canto masterpiece. Watching the opera is a fun way to acquaint yourself with history. Norma is a Druid high priestess who betrays her people when she falls in love with one of the Roman proconsuls who is occupying Gaul and has two children with him. When she learns he has betrayed her for another priestess, Adalgisa, she becomes distraught.

Norma’s story of passion and betrayal is ideal material for opera.


Maria Callas in her debut as Norma with the Metropolitan Opera in 1956.

Bel canto literally means beautiful singing, but generally refers to a style of operatic singing from Italy during the 17th to 19th centuries, for which Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi composed works. It fell out of favor until the bel canto revival in the 1950s, spearheaded by divas such as Maria Callas, who performed Norma 89 times.

Longtime opera-goers Don Elliott and interior designer Ron Schwartz recalled the 1982 SF Opera performance by Dame Joan Sutherland as Norma and Marilyn Horne as Adalgisa, directed by Lotfi Mansouri.



When the ushers played chimes, we took our seats for the eight o’clock curtain call.

Opera Board Chairman John Gunn, President Keith Geeslin, and General Director and CEO David Gockley welcomed the audience.

Opera General Director David Gockley (since 2006) said he would like to reinvigorate the core repertory established when Italian Americans founded opera in this country. In 2009, he appointed handsome and talented Italian Nicola Luisotti as music director.

In support, Maria Manetti and Jan Shrem funded the “Great Interpreters of Italian Opera.” An artist told Maria, “Luisotti is so passionate, he’s one of the few conductors who sings along with the entire opera.”

Maria Manetti Shrem with Nicola Luisotti. The weekend before the opera gala, patrons Maria and Jan Shrem hosted a luncheon in Napa Valley to honor the Norma cast.


The set was minimalist and the chorus was dressed in subtle and muted tones such as periwinkles and French greys, creating a mood of foreboding doom. It reminded some theatergoers of The Hunger Games.

The towering set represented an ancient Druid temple, where massive stone bulls’ heads gazed down from the walls and worshipers venerated nature.

This year, the role of Norma is being performed by world-renowned soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who the New York Times said “earned a thunderous ovation” when she debuted in the role at the Metropolitan Opera last fall. Norma’s soprano aria, “Casta diva,” in Act 1, is considered a pinnacle of 19th century bel canto Italian opera.

Sondra Radvanovsky was oh-so-glamorous in the role of Norma.

Italian tenor Marco Berti sang the role of the lover who betrays Norma with another woman (yes, the same old story). American mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton made her San Francisco Opera Debut as Adalgisa.

Jamie Barton, as the priestess Adalgisa, sings a duet with tenor Marco Berti, as Pollione, proconsul of the occupying Roman forces.

Over the course of the story, the Druids construct a giant Trojan horse in the temple, hoping to launch a surprise attack on the Roman occupiers.

Norma and Adalgisa sing in harmony about their love interest, and discover they are talking about the same man.

Bass-baritone Christian Van Horn as Oroveso, Norma’s father and leader of the Druids.

Other supporting cast included A. J. Glueckert as Flavio and Jacqueline Piccolino as Clotilde, along with two adorable children, offspring of Norma and Pollione, who added some lightness to the act.

In the end, Norma and Pollione step into a Trojan horse and prepare to die together in a ritual fire. Norma sets the Trojan horse aflame and it becomes their funeral pyre. Another opera with a tragic ending!

The burning sequence at the end made a fantastic spectacle.

The cast took their bows to thunderous applause.


Following the dramatic conclusion of Bellini’s opera, patrons returned to a reconfigured City Hall for an after-party where they were offered a bountiful buffet and cocktails. They burned off the calories by dancing the night away.

Event designer Riccardo Benavides created a fantasy in City Hall, with a golden winged lion and urns filled with “fire.”

Benavides’s projections of moving clouds on the walls added to the evening’s magical feel.

The after-party spread offered specialty cocktails, more Champagne, a full bar, and mounds of freshly carved prosciutto, an array of cheeses, macaroni and cheese, and alluring desserts.

At l:30 a.m., I was among the last guests to leave, heading for Van Ness to hail a cab.


Like every local cultural institution, SF Opera is trying to attract younger people to become the next generation of supporters. The Bravo! Club, for young professionals between 21 and 40, now has more than 800 members.

For younger opera fans, the Bravo! Club Opening Night Gala, co-chaired by Club President Lauren Groff and club board member Benjamin Osgood, created a magical black-tie evening.

Bravo! Club board members Hadley Wilson, Anna Aleksandrova, Adam Arthur Bier, Lauren Groff, Kyle Brisby, Shannon Eliot, Benjamin Osgood, and Laurie Umlor.

The Bravo! Gala began with a pre-party on the balcony at City Hall, where guests enjoyed cocktails and mingling before the opening night performance.

Some of the hip young Bravo! party attendees: Karen Stolberg, Max Stolberg, Clare Dallaghan, and Tom Yoritaka.

The glamorous Bravo! after-party was held at Jardinière restaurant, Chef Traci Des Jardins’ California-French hotspot a block away from the Opera House. It featured hors d’oeuvres, cocktails, music, and dancing into the night!

I missed the Bravo! crowd at the Opera’s after-party, as they add so much vitality, especially on the dance floor. But somehow I doubt they missed us!


The Opera isn’t just for folks with season tickets and those who go to the Gala Opening. Those who enjoy it in a casual setting can attend the free event, San Francisco Opera in the Park, traditionally held on the Sunday following the Friday night opening.

More than 20,000 opera lovers come with friends, family, and children, and sprawl on blankets to picnic and enjoy the music al fresco.

The concert features singers from the company’s fall season and the San Francisco Opera Orchestra conducted by Maestro Luisotti.


Another popular annual event is the annual Opera at the Ballpark event in the Giants’ AT&T Ballpark, which allows spectators to sit in the stands or on the field and watch a live simulcast of Verdi’s La Traviata on a 103-foot, high-definition screen.

Opera at the Ballpark is another wonderful, accessible experience to share with family and friends.

The concessions were open, so you could snack on ballgame favorites like hot dogs and popcorn while enjoying high culture at the same time.

Ailyn Pérez (Violetta) and Stephen Costello (Alfredo) in SF Opera’s La Traviata.

La Traviata’s Quinn Kelsey (Giorgio Germont) and Ailyn Pérez (Violetta).

I was just at the Jay Z and Beyoncé show at the AT&T Baseball Park, where the 40,000-seat stadium appeared to be filled. It’s imperative that young people be exposed to all kinds of music, if we want to keep the art of opera alive!


To encourage a younger and broader demographic, and to help “demystify” opera, a new opera app is in the works. The SFO has also recruited tech-savvy board members and is using social media such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter to attract single-ticket buyers, as the old-guard subscriber base is diminishing.

Even among those who don’t see a season pass as too expensive, there’s some resistance to committing to an entire season; for young people I’ve spoken to, the single ticket idea is appealing.

Although the top performance tickets can be high, there are lower priced tickets starting at $25 and rush tickets for $27–$32 (on sale at 11 a.m. day of performance).

Forward-thinking San Francisco is a leader in finding ways to keep opera alive and relevant!


Photos by Jeanne Lawrence, Drew Altizer, Cory Weaver, Kristen Loken, Scott Wall, and the San Francisco Opera.

*Urbanite Jeanne Lawrence reports on lifestyle and travel from her homes in San Francisco, Shanghai, and New York, and wherever else she finds a good story.

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