San Francisco Social Diary: The SF Opera Opening Ball

Artist David Hockney designed stunning sets for Turandot, kicking off the San Francisco Opera’s 95th season and its Opening Night Gala.


At the 2017 San Francisco Opera Opening Ball, one of the West Coast’s premiere philanthropic evenings, more than 3,000 opera fans enjoyed a champagne promenade, dinner in an “Imperial Palace,” a performance of Puccini’s Chinese-themed Turandot, and a hopping after-party.

The Ball kicked off the 95th season of the SF Opera and the last season for which Maestro Nicola Luisotti will be company music director.

Though he’s leaving the SF Opera, Maestro Luisotti will return for future engagements as a guest conductor.

Opera Guild President Jane Mudge and Event Chairs Courtney Labe and Maryam Muduroglu hosted the Ball, along with Honorary Chairs John and Cynthia Gunn and Diane Wilsey. Alex Petalas and Victoria Weatherford co-chaired the BRAVO! Gala (for the younger set).

Opera Ball Co-Chair Courtney Labe (in Lily Samii), Opera Guild President Jane Mudge (in Marchesa), and Opera Ball Co-Chair Maryam Muduroglu (in Lily Samii).

Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock (wearing a vintage Armani suit from a SF Opera production of Lulu), Kate Shilvock (in Lily Samii), fashion designer Lily Samii, Rita Simonini, former General Director David Gockley, Linda Kemper, and Music Director Nicola Luisotti.

BRAVO! Board members Anjali Menon, Laurie Diab, Kari Coomans, Alex Jakle, Shannon Eliot, Xanadu Bruggers, Victoria Weatherford, Laura Della Guardia, Alexander Petalas, Katie Bryant, Susan Walker, Leah Fine, Rachel Lem, Aris Damji, and Nicole Jiam.


The evening began with guests in the customary finery parading on the bright pink carpet covering the steps of the War Memorial Opera House.

The theme of the night seemed to be “the brighter, the better!” Many of the bedecked and bejeweled ladies (and gents!) chose colorful, exuberant designs that looked right at home among David Hockney’s lavish set designs and Ideas Events designer J. Riccardo Benavides’ Imperial Chinese-inspired décor.

Guests were greeted by a trio of ornately dressed Chinese fan performers.

Setting the scene was an opulent floral peacock, a symbol of the Chinese Ming Dynasty representing divinity, rank, power, and beauty.

The peacock was partnered with a floral dragon, thought to have auspicious powers and a symbol of power and strength for the ancient emperors.

Opera Ball Co-Chair Maryam Muduroglu (in orange) with her opera-loving family: Sami Muduroglu, Cyrus Muduroglu, Nazan Orr, Oran Muduroglu, and Charles Orr.

The Malin family attended in memory of the late opera patron (and Guild President) Charlot Malin: Sebastian Malin, Tore Diskerud, Turid Diskerud, Benjamin Malin, and Gregory Malin.

Former SF Mayor Willie Brown and Sonya Molodetskaya, wearing Vasily Vein.

Honorary Committee members Jorge Maumer and Carolyn Chandler, in Monique Lhuillier.

Honorary Committee members Komal Shah, in Oscar de la Renta, and Mai Shiver.

Interior Designer Ian Stallings and Jeanne Lawrence, in a custom jacket by Beijing-based couturier Guo Pei, who created Rihanna’s spectacular golden gown for the 2015 Met Ball.

Steve Menzies, Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, Kate Shilvock, Karen Richardson, and John Rubinstein.

Beth Townsend and Pierre Theodore.

Opera Guild member Vera Carpeneti, Richard Carpeneti, Debra Carpeneti, Bob Friese, and Opera Guild member Chandra Friese.

Honorary Committee members Patrick King and Dr. Carolyn Chang, wearing Andrew Gn.

Gary Garabedian and former Opera Ball Chair Karen J. Kubin, in Monique L’Huillier.

Benefactor Party Sponsor Jack Calhoun, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Paul Pelosi, and Benefactor Party Sponsor Trent Norris.

Richard Sablatura and drag performer Donna Sachet, who skipped her signature crimson in favor of a champagne-colored vintage Oleg Cassini gown.

Honorary Committee members Mary and Bill Poland.

Kevin McWilliams and Opera Board member Anne McWilliams.

Honorary Committee members Carol and Dixon Doll.

Tanya Powell (in Vera Wang), Patricia Ferrin Loucks, Mary Poland, Deepa Pakianathan (wearing Norwegian designer Keyna to honor the late Charlot Malin), and Natalia Urrutia-Hernandez.

Opera Guild member Sandra Farris with daughter Shannon Cronan and her husband Dan Cronan.

Dennis Calas and Lorna Meyer-Calas, with UC Davis Manetti Shrem Museum supporters Carol and Gerry Parker.

ess Martin, David Reposar, Camille Bently, Aimee Leroux, Jackie Pritzker, and Jennifer Raiser.

Richard Livermore and Opera Guild member Cynthia Livermore, in Carolina Herrera.

Jim and Lisa Zanze.

Fashion risk-takers Rada Katz, Farah Makras, Sonya Molodetskaya, and Brenda Zarate.

Steve Westly, venture capitalist and former State Controller and Chief Financial Officer of California, with Anita Westly.

Jordan Gardner, BRAVO! Gala Co-Chair Victoria Weatherford (in Badgley Mischka), Ingrid Robinson, and BRAVO! Gala Co-Chair Alex Petalas.

Former Secretary of State George Shultz and SF Protocol Chief Charlotte Shultz, wearing Monique Lhuillier.

SF Opera President Keith Geeslin, Priscilla Geeslin, Catherine Geeslin, and Frank Gogol.

Justice Elia Betz and Heide Betz.

Chrisa Pappas Sioukas, wearing Christian Dior, and Dean Sioukas.

After making their entrances, attendees enjoyed cocktails and catching up in the War Memorial Opera House.

Gus Murad, Bahya Murad, Katherine Simon, Dan Simon, Opera Guild member Claire Fluhr, and Jack Fluhr.

Virginia Girard, Daniel Girard, and Ann Girard.

Seattle Art Museum Trustee Roberta Sherman, with Julie Coplon.

Hairstylist Alex Chases and Jennifer Walske, wearing Brandon Maxwell.

Elisa Stephens, Kathy Hilton, Alan Malouf, and Allison Speer (in Andrew Gn).

Bettina Duval, Glenn Duval, Janet Reilly, Clint Reilly, Donna Ames-Heldfond, and Robert Harvey.

Sandra Farris, Marilyn Cabak, and Michael Cabak.

Sheila Ortona, Italian Consul General Lorenzo Ortona, Claudia Volpe, Nick Volpe, Romana Bracco, and Paul Gamba.

Opera Guild member Judith Renard and John Renard.

Opera President Keith Geeslin and Dagmar Dolby.

Raj Singh, Renata Anderson, Mai Shiver, and Jack Sholl.


For the occasion, the gentlemen (even the Silicon Valley crowd, who favor casual attire) were just as well-dressed as the ladies. One told me he’d commissioned his bespoke tux after one worn by Sean Connery as James Bond in 1962’s Dr. No; the midnight blue shawl-collar tuxedo was designed by Anthony Sinclair, Bond’s signature tailor.

Clara Shayevich with Mark Calvano and Joel Goodrich, both wearing the same silver sequin jacket they’d bought in LA, each thinking it would be unique.

Keith Wetmore (far left) and Andrew Hinek (far right), who both wore pink Tom Ford jackets, with Diane Adams, Claudia Ross (in J. Mendel), Krista Giovara, and Teri O’Brien.

PR pro Mark Rhoades, fashion designer Karen Caldwell, in a dress of her own design, and interior designer David Kensington.

Elena Zorn, Abraham Valentino, and Bibiana Lazo.

Anthony Alfidi attended in full military dress uniform.

Jesse Eller and Jarrod Baumann.

Theater patron Andrew Martin-Weber and costume designer Machine Dazzle.

Navid Armstrong, wearing Vera Wang, with photographers Ando Caulfield (left) and Devlin Shand, whose unconventional style was recently highlighted in a SF Chronicle profile.


After cocktail hour, 800 guests enjoyed a sold-out dinner in a tented pavilion adjacent to the War Memorial Opera House.

Guests promenaded past the Opera House and City Hall to reach the “Imperial Palace” dinner pavilion.

In from Los Angeles: Patricia Kelly, widow of the late Gene Kelly, and fashion designer Ali Rahimi, both wearing Ali Rahimi for Mon Atelier.

Opening Weekend Grand Sponsor Diane Wilsey, in Oscar de la Renta, and Bob Hill.

Regis Kelly and Merrill Randol dressed for the Chinese theme.

James Froeb and Opera Guild member Linle Froeb.

Maggie Mudge and Jane Mudge.

David Shimmon and Mary Beth Shimmon, wearing Delpozo.

Dolly and George Chammas.

Charlotte Shultz, composer Gordon Getty, and Nancy Bechtle, in Tom Ford.

Philip Wilson and Opera Guild member Linda Zider.

Opera Guild member Toni Wolfson, wearing Vera Wang, and Bob Federighi.

Christina Lawrence and Scott McClure.

Young opera fans got to hang out together at several “teenager tables.”


Each year, I wonder how Event Designer J. Riccardo Benavides can come up with something different, and each year I am impressed anew by the ingenuity, glamour, and astounding detail with which he develop and executes the theme.

This year, Benavides took cues from Turandot, which is set in ancient Peking (now Beijing). Yet instead of going with typical red (the Chinese color of good fortune) that would compete with David Hockney’s sets, he created an “Imperial Palace” inspired by the late Sir David Tang, who created the China Clubs in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Singapore  as well as the “Shanghai Tang” fashion chain.

Event Designer Riccardo Benavides, wearing custom Ali Rahimi, and Alan Morrell, GM of Neiman Marcus, the evening’s Dinner Sponsor.

Passing through the extravagant entrance to the pavilion, flanked by two more floral peacocks, felt like entering a real ancient palace.

Instead of traditional red, event designer J. Riccardo Benavides chose a cinnamon and gold palette.

Benavides took inspiration from Sir David Tang’s signature chinoiserie details, Asian influences, and quirky objects d’art.

McCalls Catering prepared another divine menu: ginger-carrot soup, crab salad, beef and halibut, and chocolate ganache gateau.

The Gala Wine Sponsor was Napa Valley’s Hall Winery; proprietors Kathryn and Craig Hall are deeply involved with Napa arts, such as July’s annual Festival Napa Valley.


Another milestone was celebrated at the Opera Ball:  For his 90th birthday, longtime opera patron Bernard Osher invited 90 of his dearest friends as his guests. His wife, Barbro Osher, a native of Stockholm, is Swedish Consul General in San Francisco, so he hosted a truly international group.

Bernard Osher sold his Butterfield Auction House to eBay in 1999, and today focuses on philanthropy benefitting education and the arts.

The Oshers had their own private party within the dinner pavilion, with several long tables reserved for their group.


Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, first performed at Milan’s Teatro alla Scala in 1926, was performed a year later at the SF Opera.

Left unfinished upon Puccini’s death and completed by Italian composer Franco Alfano, Turandot is set in Peking, China. It follows the courtship of the beautiful but cold Princess Turandot by a mysterious stranger named Calaf, who must triumph over three riddles to win her love—or die in the process.

I regret that I missed the 1998 production held at Beijing’s Forbidden City, which was co-produced by The China Performing Arts Agency and directed by Zhang Yimou. Hopefully it will some day happen again.

Honorary Chair and Grand Sponsor Diane Wilsey provided extravagant floral dragon garlands that spanned the entire length of the opera house box horseshoe.

Federico Sandino and Honorary Committee member Barbara Brown.

Opera Board Chair John Gunn, Opera President Keith Geeslin, and Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock introduced the show.

Luisotti led an orchestra of 73 musicians, with an additional 13 backstage (plus 167 performers!).

For Turandot, Costume Designer Ian Falconer created 200 costumes that were bold abstractions of traditional Chinese dress.

Members of the chorus were dressed in black to contrast against the bright sets.


British artist David Hockney originally designed Turandot sets for the SF Opera in 1993, and restaged in 1998, 2002, and 2011. His designs were used again this season on the occasion of his 80th birthday.

The sets utilize strong diagonals and mad perspectives, to represent the cruel times in which the story took place.

Hockney says he felt free to experiment since the fantasy story is set in mythical China.

Hockney utilized Chinese references while avoiding the kitsch of overdone chinoiserie or too many dragons.


After nine seasons as music director, Maestro Nicola Luisotti will step down from his post at the conclusion of the 2017–18 season. Hired by former Opera General Director David Gockley, Luisotti has conducted some 35 productions with the company.

After the performance, on stage and surrounded by the cast, Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock presented Luisotti with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the highest award the company bestows on an artistic professional.

Luisotti will become Associate Music Director at Madrid’s Teatro Real and fulfill other bookings across the globe, but he’ll return to San Francisco for conducting engagements in 2019 and 2020.

Former Opera General Director David Gockley and Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock spoke warmly of their time with Luisotti, prompting laughter from the Maestro and the audience.

Ever gracious and charming, Maestro Luisotti accepted the award with appreciative and moving words about his experience and San Francisco—“a great city full of open-minded, open-hearted people.”

“The San Francisco Opera has made me a better man, a better artist, a better thinker—better everything,” Luisotti said.

Nicola Luisotti and his Italian music agent, Gianluca Macheda, who represents an international rooster of acclaimed musical artists.


After the last curtain call, patrons returned to the Imperial Palace pavilion for the after-performance party to catch up with friends, to dance, and to enjoy the sweet and savory treats on the buffet table.

People danced into the wee hours to the music and performance of Pop ROCKS.

This year’s party seemed even more spirited than last, with guests staying until the very end.

Opera Guild Managing Director Susan Malott, Morgan Malott, Adam Stark, Danielle Malott, Jim Malott, Christina Malott, and Marc Malott.

The after-party offered tables laden with an array of dim sum, dessert, and cheese.

Turandot returns with more runs in November and December.


Photography by Drew Altizer and Irja Elisa.

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