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Eight for 80: The Greatest Moments in the History of the San Francisco Opera Ball

By Jon Finck

Opera Ball 2013 chairs Mai Shiver and Ann Girard with Guild President Karen Kubin and Mayor Ed Lee and wife Anita. (Photo by Drew Altizer)

In the summer of 1941, the nascent Opera Guild announced that it would host an Opera Ball, a gala to be held the first night of the approaching opera season. The glamorous event was to be held at the Museum of Modern Art in the Veterans Building. The ball was anticipated to be the highlight of the social season, and proceeds would benefit the guild student matinees.

The success of the debut Opera Ball established a new and lasting San Francisco tradition that firmly took root. Opening nights at the San Francisco Opera have always proved to be special, magical evenings of great social import, a nightof society swells “to make the scene and be seen” — one part performance, one part party, one part fashion, one part philanthropy.

“The Opera and the Opera Ball have always been the jewel in the crown of the City’s performing arts organizations,” says SF Opera Guild President Mary Poland. “I firmly believe the ball has always been a welcoming social event, an opportunity for newcomers to meet the old guard and, most importantly, for everyone to enjoy the musical talents of our extraordinary San Francisco Opera company. Besides, it’s a swelluva party.”

Each year the guest list is a constellation of opera lovers; political leaders from City Hall, Sacramento and Washington, D.C.; national civic and philanthropic leaders; old faces from legacy families (and some that have been gently tweaked); new faces from the latest business boom; diplomats, fashionistas of all stripes and celebrities who want a memorable night out on the town.

Here’s a look back at some of the evening’s greatest hits.

October 13, 1941

The opera: Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Opera Ball chair: Mrs. Kenneth Monteagle; Guild president: Mrs. Henry Potter Russell. The scene: The inaugural OperaBall was held at the Museum of Art, Veterans Building. Anticipated as “society’s keynote event of the month,” the ball attracted a list of who’s who social mavens to work on the candlelit dinner. Guests included famed soprano Lily Pons along with society doyennes (who took their husbands’ full monikers) Mrs. Robert Watt Miller, Mrs. I. W. Hellman, Mrs. Stanley Powell and Mrs. Cabot Brown.

 Mrs. Richard S. McCreery, the City’s most honored dowager, in 1956.

September 13, 1956

The opera: Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. Opera Ball chair: Mrs. Robert Watt Miller; Guild president: Mrs. Richard C. Hamm. The scene: Life magazine noted the dazzling opening night pre- and post-opera parties, including every move of the City’s most honored dowager, Mrs. Richard S. McCreery, dripping in white mink. Hailed as the “start of the city’s best social season in years,” the glittering Champagne supper included opera stars Dorothy Kirstenand Jussi Bjoerling, and socialites Mrs. J. D. Zellerbach, William Crocker, Mrs. Prentis Cobb Hale, and hostess extraordinaire Mrs.William P. Roth.

September 9, 1983

The opera: Verdi’s Otello. Opera Ball chair: Jane Osgood; Guild president: Eileen Ludwig. The scene: This was the infamous opening that got delayed when Placido Domingo flew cross-country to save the night. The performance began at 10:30 p.m. and concluded at 1.30 a.m. Twin pre-parties were in motion at 5 p.m.: a Champagne-soaked feast at the Veterans Building and the guild’s dinner-dance at City Hall. Guests included author Arianna Stassinopoulos and Werner Erhard, Carmella Scaggs, Sally Debenham and Urania Ristow. Columnist Herb Caen noted when the curtain finally went up the gilded audience was “more than slightly sloshed.”

September 8, 1989

The opera: Verdi’s Falstaff. Opera Ball chair: Sara Duryea; Guild president: Jane Hartley. The scene: Celebrity chanteuse Rosemary Clooney sang at the pre-performance dinner; fashion designer Bob Mackie attended along with film and Broadway actor Raul Julia. The Falstaff performance was delayed due to a surprise demonstration by dozens of AIDS activists. More than 100 of them bought cheap standing-room tickets and, seconds before the maestro was to start the Star-Spangled Banner, the activists took off their jackets to reveal STOP AIDS tees and marched down the aisles, chanting and blowing whistles. Meanwhile, gala-goers in box seats voiced displeasure. It was quite the scene and the buzz of ball afterwards.

Danielle Steele with her date, Hollywood actor George Hamilton in 1997.

September 5, 1997

The opera: Gala Celebration Concert hosted by Beverly Sills and Derek Jacobi. Opera Ball co-chairs: Gretchen Leach, Sally Jordan and Jane Hartley; Guild president: Jackie Shinefield. The scene: Reopening of the War Memorial Opera House after 18 months of seismic repairs and the 75th anniversary of SF Opera. Pat Steger noted the “Opera Ball was one of those everyone-who-is-anyone events” for over 1,200 swells, including Washington socialite Lucky Roosevelt, actor George Hamilton, playwright Terrence McNally and politicos up and down the Left Coast. The chatter at the ball was how beautiful the restored Opera House chandelier looked.

George and Charlotte Shultz in 2000.

September 8, 2000

The opera: Lotfi Mansouri Gala Concert. Opera Ball chair:Dede Wilsey with co-chairs Dianne Taube and Irene Kivitz The scene: An elegant gala concert with superstars Renée Fleming, Anna Netrebko, Susan Graham, Frederica von Stade, Dmitri Hvorostovsky and guest appearance by Dame Joan Sutherland.

September 10, 2005

The opera: Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri Opera Ball Co-chairs: Victoria Kornblum and Katie Jarman; Guild President: Cheryl Baxter. The scene: The Opera Ball theme, “Midnight at the Oasis,” was a knockout from the belly dancers and snake charmers to Kazzy the camel. Food Network host Giada DeLaurentiis created a Behind the Bash TV segment.

September 6, 2013

The Opera: Boito’s Mefistofele. Opera Ball co-chairs: Mai Shiver and Ann Girard; Guild president: Karen Kubin. Facts: “In the Garden of Good and Evil” was the theme. Guru Colin Cowieen livened the look of the event, transforming staid City Hall into equal parts heavenly and celestial with a devilishly red-hot after-party.

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