A Look Back at Opera Ball

Marybeth La Motte in Escada at Opera Ball 1997

Marybeth La Motte in Escada at Opera Ball 1997

I attended Opera Ball in San Francisco for the first time in 1994; I’ll never forget my seat mate’s comment at dinner, “One never wears black to the opera opening!” Oops, and I thought I looked great in my black silk gown by Calvin Klein. I still have the dress, I still think it is beautiful and I still wear it more than 20 years later. However, I will not wear it to the opera on opening night again. Since then, I have attended at least 20 Opera Balls in San Francisco, and I even chaired one. I adore the pageantry and excitement of the evening — women in opulent gowns and jewels with carefully coifed hairstyles, air kisses, the pomp, and the performances — all add to a much-loved pastime.

Of all the opera balls since, my favorite was on September 5, 1997, San Francisco Opera’s 75th-anniversary celebration and return to the War Memorial Opera House after two years and an $88.5 million restoration. Jane Hartley served as Opera Ball Chair, with Sally Jordan and Gretchen Leach as 75th-anniversary celebration chairs and Linle Froeb and Brian Hackfeld as chairs for the Bravo! Club’s opening night celebration.

The audience was in awe not only over the restored opera house’s great gold curtain, Starburst chandelier, and rich, red velvet seats but also the gala concert hosted by soprano Beverly Sills with actor Derek Jacobi as master of ceremonies. Then General Director Lotfi Mansouri served up performances from legendary divas Leonie Rysanek and Joan Sutherland, and from some of the world’s greatest opera stars including Placido Domingo, Marilyn Horne, Ruth Ann Swenson, Frederica von Stade and Samuel Ramey, just to name a few. We dined and danced in a luxurious tent following the memorable performance and got home at 2:00 am, in time to watch a sad and beautiful farewell to Princess Diana, whose funeral was on television.

My second favorite opera ball, of course, was the one I co-chaired with Cheryl Baxter in 2007; we both wore Ungaro. It was David Gockley‘s first full season as general director for San Francisco Opera and he presented Samson and Delilah onstage. Event producer Robert Fountain created a tent fit for Delilah; and, observing the crowd, Sally Debenham noted to Jeannie Lawrence: “Astounding! It’s a whole new group of young people in their 20’s, 30’s and 40’s: enthusiastic, having a wonderful time…that bodes well for the future of opera.”

I look forward to returning to the War Memorial Opera House on September 5th for Opera Ball this year, where not much has changed since 1932. Throughout the restoration, Mansouri insisted on keeping everything the same, from the carpeting to the configurations for the seats, everything was replicated. This year, my 20th anniversary as an audience member, I am wearing black! This one is a beaded gown from Carmen Marc Valvo‘s 25th-anniversary couture collection, it weighs about 10 pounds and I hope I can wear it again over the next 20 years.