SF Opera Opening-night Gala




“New” was the zeitgeist in play Friday at the Opera Ball celebrating the 87th season opener of the San Francisco Opera.

New Music Director, Nicola Luisotti. New gala format. New production of Verdi’s Il Trovatore. A new, new economy in which to operate. As well as “new media,” embodied by the glamorous presence of Arianna Huffington.

And a sellout crowd of over a thousand gala guests, ably guided by Opera Ball co-chairwomen Teresa Meaderis and Adrianna Pope Sullivan, enthusiastically showed their support for this beloved and world-renowned company.

But that pesky new economy forced a few changes to the format: gone was the Patrons' party tent from the outdoor courtyard between the Opera House and the Veterans’ Building.

Instead, the Opera Guild (celebrating its 70th anniversary this year), wisely cut costs and combined forces. Opera Ball patrons pre-partied in the foyer of the Veterans’ Building (spilling out on to the sidewalk in front); Bravo! Club was across the street at City Hall. Post-performance, everyone supped back in City Hall where the Guild only required one caterer, one designer and one band.

These trims may well net the Guild close to a cool mil in support of the opera’s music education and programs in public schools. And, bravo!

SF Opera Opening Night gala promenade

Fortunately, the opera’s ace is stalwart and super support from some of its major players.

“This entire organization is committed to ensuring that we create something really wonderful,” said Board trustee Dede Wilsey, who has long underwritten the costs of the entire Opera opening weekend.

And if a $40 million Opera endowment established by Board Chairman John Gunn and his wife, Cynthia Fry Gunn, wasn’t already enough -- this year, they sweetened the pot by sponsoring Luisotti’s inaugural season to the tune of a six-figure number.

“You can’t imagine how expensive opera is,” explained SF Opera General Director David Gockley. “In accepting the position of music director, Nicola, rightly, asked for certain singers, certain productions, a different size of orchestra and chorus. All priorities which are not in our budget. A chorister alone can cost upwards of $25K.”

Lucky for Gockley, he didn’t need to worry about the cost of the numerous and gorgeous gala gowns which graced the red carpet. Bright, festive colors shone this year. And the opera’s Spanish-theme inspired many ladies to channel their inner gypsy in choosing bold red and black gowns, draped with dramatic wraps.

Leading the fashion parade this year? It was, actually, a man: Oscar de la Renta, whose dynamic and very different designs stood out on three fashionable blondes.

Protocol Chief Charlotte Mailliard Shultz was simply breathtaking in a black, beaded column gown.  Dede Wilsey was resplendent in a ruby-red gown and full skirt (accessorized with her own eye-popping ruby parure). And Angelique Griepp glowed in a lime-green Oscar Resort gown of cascading ruffles.

Also in the mix? Everything from a knockout Naeem Khan, hand-beaded gown which fit Deepa Pakianathan like a glove to Amber Marie Bently (recently returned from Burning Man) who rocked it like she was still on the Playa in a dove-gray, punk-inspired gown by Skingraft.

Exuding old-Hollywood glamour, Arianna Huffington knows well from opera: Not only did she pen a best-seller about diva Maria Callas, she also met her former husband, Michael Huffington, here in 1985 where she was introduced to him at the Opera Gala by pal, Ann Getty.

Huffington (escorted to the cocktail party by Dr. Alan Malouf) graced our fair city because of planned visits to Twitter HQ as well as the 40th birthday party for Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.

“What I love about San Francisco is the fascinating intersection between different worlds,” explained Huffington. “Earlier today I was at Twitter. Tonight, I”m here!”

But there are things in EssEff, other than new technology, which also command her attention: shopping. She purchased her classic, black gown from the Christian Dior Boutique on Union Square.

“There’s a Dior boutique in Los Angeles, too,” said Huffington. “But I only buy my Dior here, in the City, from personal stylist Brenda Zarate."

Score one for the home team!

Also cheering on home-team couture?Lily Samii, who celebrates 20 years as one of San Francisco’s leading designing women.

Strategically positioned on the red carpet, Samii was a fashionable mother hen clucking as almost 15 of her gowns nailed their sartorial marks. Including that of Jennifer Siebel Newsom, who glowed in gossamer lavender -- possibly the most stylish maternity gown ever.

Ann Caen, another leading lady of style, agreed: “Jennifer looks amazing!”

“I’m really having fun tonight with Gavin, I keep calling him Governor Newsom,” continued Caen, laughing. “I told him I’m practicing for his future.”

Among the male contingent? No slouches here. George Chamas sported a one-of-a-kind, James Bond-issue Brioni tuxedo. Washington Monthly Publisher Markos Kounalakis channeled a fifties-cool, Don Draper-esque vibe -- the Hellenic edition. And Theodore Brown was one of the few good men to don traditional white-tie, tails and top hat.

After, that is, Da Mayor Willie Brown who always commands the sartorial spotlight -- natty in his dressed-to-the-Opera-Gala-nines uniform as he charmed all the ladies who delighted in modeling his tip-top chapeau as they posed for photogs.

In fact, Mayor Brown’s sheer enthusiasm for affairs of the gala sort marked him as the belle of this ball.

Arriving with gal-pal Sonya Molodetskaya, Brown staked his claim on the red carpet like a school-boy at 49ers opening day. He assessed talent and compiled stats as he masterfully handicapped the lineup.

“Look at the men: Most of them are wearing the same black-tie tux they wore to the Symphony on Wednesday. No woman here would be caught dead in the same gown she just wore the other night!” exclaimed Brown, incredulously.

Having done the heavy lifting, chairwomen Teresa Meaderis and Adrianna Pope Sullivan were finally able to have some fun on Friday.

“We had opera at it's best tonight!” said Sullivan. “It’s so gratifying to have a production of such quality and substance to open our season.  It reaffirms why opera as an art form has such tremendous support in San Francisco.”

Luisotti agreed: “I think we had a great start, a great time tonight!” enthused the new music director. “But that’s what so wonderful about opera, that feeling of excitement which is theater.”

The audience agreed, too. For the first time in anyone’s recent memory, guest were riveted by the opera and (rather than ducking out at intermission) rallied back to their seats.

“You could feel the excitement in the audience,” said Cynthia Gunn, post-performance. “We adore Nicola and embrace him. I think his future here with this opera company will be bright.”

While the plot of Il Trovatore has been called implausible, the music is opera at its most beautiful. As important? Set in Spain,  the opera inspired Meaderis and Sullivan to channel their inner flamenco and dream up some red-hot decor.

101 tables were set within the Rotunda, Light Court and balcony of City Hall, a lily of space which requires very little gilding on its own.

But after designer Stanlee Gatti got done, wethinks that black lace should always hang throughout this elegant Beaux-arts building.

Swags of the stuff framed all the archways in the rotunda. The tables echoed this simple black lace look and were topped with towering faux wrought-iron candelabra from which hung a chaste amount of fat red roses.

“Our ‘matador,’ Stanlee, took the bull by the horns this year and created a Spanish Fiesta!” quipped Sullivan. “I was enchanted.”

Dan McCall and his crack McCall Associates crew chose to eschew a Spanish-themed menu. Instead, they served up one of their finest ever suppers: sweet corn soup, Dungeness crab marquise, filet of beef wrapped in bacon and a butterscotch pot de creme.

“We decided this year to stick with classic dishes that we thought would please our grand patrons,” explained Adrianna Sullivan. “With so many changes to the format this year, we wanted to make sure the ‘Old Guard’ was happy with the food.”

And the format of combining the younger Bravo! set in the same space as the Opera patrons, was a hit, too.

Starring throughout, was the classic sounds of the Bill Hopkins Orchestra. During dinner the band played soft, Moon River stylings. After dinner, the band kicked into high-gear dance music as the Bravo! crowd rushed down the Rotunda stairs in their gowns and tuxes and commandeered the dance floor.

Some Old Guard patrons, at first, looked askance at the wild shimmying. But unable to resist the rhythm a few brave souls joined in the fun.

By night’s end, an exhausted but jubilant Gockley was feeling his oats, too.

“Tonight’s performance was fabulous. Tremendous. Exciting! I think I can honestly say it was the most vibrant production I’ve ever seen in San Francisco,” enthused Gockley.

In contrast, Gockley recalled an opening Opera night back in eighties, when Gordon Getty flew in head-lining performer Placido Domingo. But they were late arriving and in a major, last-minute gala switcheroo (so as to avoid tipsy and tired patrons) the dinner was moved ahead of the performance.

“Everyone remembers when something colorful or really crazy happens,” said Gockley, laughing. “For me, I’m always thrilled and relieved when everything goes by the book.”

Though gala expert Willie Brown often relishes the theatrics of drama, he agreed.

“Tonight was one of the best Opera opening nights in 30 years,” enthused Brown, a veteran of at least 40 such galas. “I love all the pomp-and-circumstance; the make-believe. It’s like New Year’s Eve in September!”

Check out a ton more photos below

Travis Hedemann, Linda Kemper, her fiance, SF Opera General Director David Gockley and his daughter, Meredith Hedemann

Honorary Ball chairwoman Cynthia Fry Gunn (in Herrera) and her husband, SF Opera Board Chairman John Gunn



Opera Ball Gala co-chairs Teresa Meaderis (in Catherine Regehr) and Adrianna Pope Sullivan (in vintage Jean Louis)



Dr. Alan Malouf, Arianna Huffington (in Dior), Willie Brown and Charlotte Shultz (in Oscar)


John Traina and Honorary Ball chairwoman Dede Wilsey (in Oscar)



Eleni Tsakopoulos-Kounalakis (in Prada) and her husband, publisher Markos Kounalakis


SF Opera Board President George Hume and his wife, Leslie Hume



Jennifer Siebel Newsom (in Lily Samii) and her husband, Mayor Gavin Newsom



Bravo! co-chairs Marie Carr and Alexandra Siliezar, Opera Ball co-chairs Teresa Medearis and Adrianna Sullivan, Opera Guild President Diane Rubin

Former Sec. of State George Shultz and his missus, Protocol Chief Charlotte Mailliard Shultz (in Oscar)


Sheila and Keith McWilliams and his mom, Anne Giannini McWilliams


Sonya Molodetskaya (in vintage Andre Van Pier) and the Hon. Willie Brown


Susie McBaine, Connie Goodyear Baron, Pat McBaine and Dr. Barry Baron


Patsy Pope (in vintage Michael Casey) and Robert Harvey


Karen Caldwell (in Samii) and designer Lily Samii




Ellie Brown, her husband, Theodore Brown and her Toni Twin sister, Jeanne Corfee


Lindsay Bolton (in Reem Acra) and Angelique Griepp (in Oscar)


Katie Traina (in Diane von Furstenberg) and Todd Traina


Deepa Pakianathan (in Naeem Khan)


Delia Erlich and Vera Carpeneti


Carlie Wilmans (in Peter Soren) and Heather Kearsley Wolf (in Peggy Jennings)

Alexis Traina (in Oscar) and her husband, Trevor Traina

Alison Turner (in Max Azria) and her husband, Alex Turner


Haute haberdasher Wilkes Bashford (in Brioni)


Bravo! co-chairs Marie Carr and Alexandra Siliezar, Opera Ball co-chairs Teresa Medearis and Adrianna Sullivan, Opera Guild President Diane Rubin

Frederic Dijols and Yekaterina Barilov (in Neil Beiff)


Banana Republic President Jack Calhoun and his partner, Trent Norris



A peek through black lace curtains in City Hall reveals a Stanlee Gatti-flamenco wonderland


Black-lace Gatti tabletops in the Rotunda of City Hall


McCalls Executive Chef Lucas Schoemaker with Dolly Chamas (in Elie Saab) and her husband, George Chamas (in James Bond Brioni)


Bulgari manager Daniel Diaz and Shannon Bavaro (in Monique L'Huillier)


Sandra Go (in Victor Eastwest) and her brother, Tony Go


Mercedes Miller and Paul J. ten Doesschate



Christopher and Amber Marie Bently (in Skingraft)


Prada Manager Marius Carluci (in YSL Prada) and Joel Goodrich (in Chanel)

Ed Littlefield, Gretchen Kimball, Laura Littlefield and John Jamison

Farah Makras and her husband, SF Fire Commission President Victor Makras

Kelly Grimes, Roberta Economidis, Michelle Curtis and Ye-Hui Lu



Bob Federighi and his wife, Toni Wolfson (in Nancy Taylor)

Heide Betz (in vintage Escada) and Ray "Scotty" Morris (in vintage Inverness tartan)

Maria Quiros and Chip Zecher

Willie Brown and Charlotte Shultz

Adrianna and Bobby Sullivan



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