San Francisco Social Diary: SF Opera Guild Presents “A Paris Holiday”

At this year’s annual San Francisco Opera Guild holiday dinner, the War Memorial Opera House stage was turned into a glamorous, intimate dinner party.



Charity committees everywhere try to come up with fresh, unique event ideas. The San Francisco Opera Guild managed to score a bull’s-eye with its annual black-tie party in December, A Paris Holiday, which revived the tradition of dinner on the War Memorial Opera House stage.

The evening also honored arts supporter and philanthropist Diane “Dede” Wilsey, whom Honorary Chair and SF Opera Director David Gockley called “an advocate for the arts and a role model in our cherishedcommunity.” He called fundraising “an extreme sport” and dubbed her “an athlete of Olympian caliber,” adding, “She’s San Francisco’s secret weapon!”

The Opera Guild holiday dinner closed the fall opera season and concluded the Guild’s 75th anniversary year at the War Memorial Opera House.

Gregory and Charlot Malin, who was recently appointed President of the San Francisco Opera Guild.

Opera Board President Keith Geeslin, honoree Dede Wilsey, and Opera Director David Gockley.


A Paris Holiday began with a cocktail reception in the lobby of the historic War Memorial Opera House, where the company was wrapping up its run of La Bohème,followed by the San Francisco Ballet’s holiday Nutcracker performances.

Among the evening’s delights: enjoying the entire opera house—crowd-free.

La Marca Prosecco sponsored the pre-dinner cocktail hour in the dramatic foyer with high, barren-vaulted, gold-coffered ceiling, marble floors, and opulent decorations.

Event stylist J. Riccardo Benavides won raves for carrying out the Paris theme with a monumental Eiffel Tower and an extravagant profusion of pink flowers.

While sipping champagne and nibbling hors d’oeuvre, guests were serenaded by French accordionists.


There was a diversity of ages in the crowd of longtime and new members of the Opera Guild. Founded in 1939, the organization is powerful, and by raising funds to provide arts education and educate future generations, it will help keep this art alive.

Guild members are hard-working and dedicated, since the budget for the SF Opera is substantial. The productions usually involve a large cast and orchestra as well as impressive sets and costumes.

Newly appointed Opera Guild President Charlot Malin and her husband Gregory Malin.

Nellis Smith with Jane Mudge, co-chair with Karin Kubin of 2015’s glamorous kickoff event, the September Opera Ball.

Olivia Decker, Riccardo Benavides, former Guild President Karen Kubin, and Jeanne Lawrence.

Cynthia Schreuder with Paul Pelosi, husband of Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, who left the next day for the Kennedy Center Honors in DC.

Bill and Mary Poland, the 2010 Opera Ball Co-Chair.

Susan Tamagni, Dede Wilsey, Lois Lehrman, and Mary Kasaris.

Lois Lehrman, celebrating her 36th year publishing the Nob Hill Gazette, said she always enjoys the Opera Guild holiday dinners because they’re fun and “not stuffy”—as opera and related activities are often unfairly reputed to be.


Committee members Jane Mudge and Richard C. Barker, with Jeanne Lawrence.

Opera Board President Keith Geeslin with his wife Priscilla.

Committee members Linda Zider, Dixon Doll, and Mary Poland.

Ann Lawrence with committee members Bruce Hyman and Harriet Meyer Quarré.

Board member Karen Richardson and event stylist Riccardo Benavides.

Committee members Carol Doll and Barbara Brown.

Committee member Charlotte Maillard Shultz and her husband George Shultz, former Secretary of State, looking dapper in a plaid holiday dinner jacket.

Fati Farmanfarmaian, Guild VP Administration, with Annie Calonico-Schieding.

Barbara Traisman, Guild VP Community Outreach, with Klaus Murer.

James and Linle Froeb, Guild VP Fundraising.


Photographer Drew Altizer captured the spirit of night, traditionally elegant and refined.  The smaller, exclusive gathering of just 200 was intimate, calm, and quiet enough to inspire thoughtful conversations.

Maryam Muduroglu and Shelley Gordon.

Joy Venturini Bianchi, Glenn McCoy, and Debra Bernard.

Lee Gregory and Jon Finck, SF Opera Director of Communications and Public Affairs.

Maria Manetti Shrem and Jan Shrem.

Bob and Chandra Friese, with Deborah and Brad Jeffries.

Ed Conlon and Elisa Stephens.

Mike Milstein and Sandra Farris.

Robert Beadle, Maria Pitcairn, Marilyn Cabak, and Michael Cabak.

James Franklin Krohn, of presenting sponsor Neiman Marcus, with Shannon Blunden.

Connie and Bob Lurie.

Nadir and Sobia Shaikh.

Renata Anderson and Raj Singh.

Anthony Vissian and Rose Rosenberg.


Dinner and dancing on the opera stage, a rare opportunity, was called at 7 p.m. What could be more charming than dinner on the opera stage surrounded by the dramatic sets and costumes of La Boheme?

One guest said, “I told my husband, ‘See? The singers can see you when you sleep during their performance!’”

In the opera house theater, Eiffel Tower light projections helped create a sense of 19th-century Paris.

Dining onstage offered a very different perspective of the chandeliers, opera boxes, and seats.

Guests filed past silhouettes of attendees filling the seats of the Opera House and walked across a bridge spanning the empty orchestra pit to reach the stage.

Guests were intrigued by the close-up view of stage pulleys, various set pieces from La Bohème, and costumes scattered about.

An abundance of roses in shade of pink filled the tables, while the honoree, Dede Wilsey, was treated to a centerpiece of her favorite pink peonies.

Two long VIP tables and the usual rounds were covered with a vastness of shimmering silver pallets.

Event Co-Chair Susan Tamagni, Guild President Charlot Malin, and event Co-Chair Jane Hartley.

Alan Morrell, GM of presenting sponsor Neiman Marcus Union Square, with Mike Genoshe.

Melinda Yee Franklin, Managing Director of official sponsor United Airlines, Jeanne Lawrence, and Arlene Inch, a former Miss Coronado (1956/57).

Robert Arnold-Kraft, GM of Saks Fifth Avenue, with Claire Fluhr.

Markos Kounalakis, Trent Norris, Eleni Kounalakis, and ever-fashionable Jack Calhoun of Banana Republic, in a burgundy velvet jacket.

Rolando Beramendi and Maria Manetti Shrem.

Paula and Bandel Carano.

Ken Fulk and Katie Traina.


Opera Director David Gockley will be stepping down from his position at the close of the next season. Time passes so quickly—it seems like he just arrived from Houston, where he was Director of their opera for 33 years before joining us.

During his speech, Gockley listed some of Dede’s many accomplishments as an opera supporter. For the SF Opera, she’s served on the Board of Directors since 1987 and has been the Opening Weekend Grand Sponsor. She’s also a past president of the Medallion Society (1988-1994), president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco board of trustees, and member of the UCSF Foundation board and San Francisco Ballet board.

Former Ballet board chair Dick Barker admired Dede’s being such an active board member. “What doesn’t she do?” he exclaimed.

David Gockley will be retiring after the 2015–16 season, after ten years with the San Francisco Opera.

Dede Wilsey looked stunning in Oscar de la Renta, one of her favorite designers that she frequently wears to the Opera’s opening night.


Most recently, Wilsey has been the lead donor to the company’s Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, which will feature a new, flexible 299-seat theater, rehearsal hall, education center, public archive, exhibition galleries, administrative offices, and costume shop, to open in early 2016 in the adjacent Veterans Building on the War Memorial campus.

An artist rendering of a stage setup in the Wilsey Center’s 299-seat Atrium Theater.

A photo rendering of an education space at the Wilsey Center.


Dede Wiley is a daughter of the late Wiley Buchanan, who served as Ambassador to Luxembourg and Austria and Chief of Protocol under Ronald Reagan. Her mother, Ruth Buchanan, is a beloved figure in Washington, DC and Newport, RI. Though she hails from the East Coast, she has made a substantial mark in her adopted city, San Francisco.

Dede recalled that she was invited to join the Opera Guild in the 1960s, when women couldn’t join the big board. Still, “I learned to run a company and learned to always expect the worst,” she said. “I’m indebted to the Guild.”


Dan McCall and his catering team did a superb job: the menu was inventive, the service top-notch and unrushed. Opera Guild member Linda Zider likened the meal to a symphony, “with the performance timed exactly.”

Dinner began with an amuse-bouche of egg mousseline topped with caviar.

The first course was a crab-avocado salad served with little gem lettuce, watermelon radish, and citrus that tasted fresh from the farm.

The unusual main course was duck prepared two ways: hazelnut crusted duck breast and duck leg confit, served with beluga lentils, chard, parisienne zucchini, and sauce à l’orange.

Cooked perfectly pink, in the French style, the duck prompted Rolando Beramendi, purveyor of fine Italian imports, to say, “I’m hoping that duck will be the new chicken. It has so much more flavor.”

Dessert was a passion fruit raspberry indulgence with raspberry meringue, accompanied by creamy white chocolate and berries. Handmade chocolate truffles followed, so rich and delicious we grabbed a handful to eat on the way home.

Wines from sponsor William Hill Estate Winery complemented each course.

The meal concluded with a live auction. Ed Conlon and realtor Olivia Decker, who just bought a Sotheby’s real estate franchise in her hometown of Shanghai, won the coveted SF Opera Opening Night Extravaganza package.


Of course, Dede’s two sons were in attendance, seated at what I jokingly called the   “kiddie table,” though they have kiddies of their own by now. They were joined by a coterie of good friends, including Vanessa Getty, Alison Spear, and Ken Fulk.

Alexis Traina, Dede Wilsey, and Trevor Traina.

Katie Traina and Todd Traina.

Todd Traina and Trevor Traina.


Romantic dinner music was provided by the Dick Bright Orchestra, who took well-timed breaks that actually allowed conversation (not shouting!) during dinner—much appreciated by all.

The Dick Bright Orchestra, whose pianist wore a French beret to go along with the evening’s theme.

Singer Leah Crocetto delighted and surprised us by performing something jazzier rather than the aria from her role in La Bohème that we expected.

“When I lived in New York City,” Leah said, “this kind of singing paid my bills. Let’s pretend we’re in a New York jazz club, surrounded by smoke. Every chance to sing like this, I take.”

The audience, enchanted, asked for an encore, but she demurred, explaining, “I won’t have a voice tomorrow for La Bohème.”


After dinner, the band heated up and the floor was packed with some terrific dancers.

Stanley Goldsmith with his dance partner.

Linda Zider and Theodore Brown.

Eleni and Markos Kounalakis.

Barbara Traisman and Klaus Murer.

Cynthia Schreuder and her dance partner.

Marilyn Cabak and Robert Beadle.


Former Guild President Karin Kubin called the evening “pure magic.” I second that!

When I heard the band play selections like “Tennessee Waltz” and “Tea for Two,” I felt nostalgic. As Tony Bennett sang, a sentiment shared with many others,  “I left my heart in San Francisco.”

As I left the opera house, I said a silent “Bravo” to the Guild, to Dede, and to the entire fun, perfectly executed, and memorable event.

Everyone was going home with a smile. “It was an elegant and intimate evening,” summed up newly appointed Guild President Charlot D. Malin. “Magnifique!”


Photography by Drew Altizer and SF 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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