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Anatomy of a ball

By Catherine Bigelow

Komal Shaw dazzles in elaborate gowns, like this de la Renta.
Fondly dubbed “Hell Week,” the fall arts and social season unfurling this month in San Francisco requires herculean efforts on all fronts as the SF Symphony Gala (Sept. 5) and SF Opera Ball (Sept. 7) occur a mere 48 hours apart. And since summer, these soirees are all-hands-on-deck scenarios — from staff, event designers and caterers to gala guests, stylists and photographers. While many gala attendees are veterans of this cultural bacchanal, the Symphony and Opera have successfully cultivated new, younger audiences whose opening-night support benefits both organization’s free music education programs for students. We took a peek behind the curtain with our gala experts on how they do that and what the gala uninitiated should, or, as importantly, should not do. What’s the Protocol when seated with so-and-so? Congratulations, you’ve made the cut at a top-tier table! But there are rules to follow — though they seem obvious, they’ve all been shamelessly broken at galas past.
J. Riccardo Benavides is one of the city’s premeir magic makers for gala decor.

The decor

Some may take for granted that an exquisitely- designed gala tent set atop an asphalt parking lot is, like, no big deal. This year Blueprint Studios designs the Symphony Patrons’ tent and designer J. Riccardo Benavides will dazzle Opera Ball guests.

“It takes seven days to erect the tent. On the fourth day, the floor goes down and 30 of us start installing decor: Lighting, drapes, stage pieces, tables, everything,” explains Benavides. “On Monday after Opera Ball, we’ll start planning for next year.”

This year’s two, one-act operas are set in Argentina, so Benavides took a scouting trip with Ball chairs Kathy Huber and Shannon Cronan. Benavides gives them a palette and they determine the specifics for items like linens, chair styles and centerpieces.

Inspired by the opera’s theme, Benavides incorporates fun, surprising elements in his design — such as poodles and Marie Antoinette models for the 2016 production of “Andrea Chénier.”

“I love opening night, it’s a joyful discovery trip,” enthuses Benavides. “My goal is for guests to feel like they are walking into an experience, not a makeshift tent.”

Tastemakers Lucas and Dan McCall on either side of former SF Symphony President John Goldman.

The food

For 30 years, McCall’s Catering has served millions of pounds of delectable canapes, dinners and post-party nibbles to gala patrons. McCalls Executive Chef-President Lucas Schoemaker nails down the menus by mid-summer, but the physical set up begins only two days before the Labor Day holiday. Then trucks rumble in Tuesday morning to commence the heavy-lifting (tents, lighting, decor, makeshift sidewalk kitchens) for both nights. McCalls will cook and serve 600 Opera Ball guests. For the Symphony, Schoemaker presides over five unique menus for 1,549 guests at five different venues (Patrons’ tent, Symphonix and Symphony Supper at City Hall, the Wattis Room, Grove Street post-party.)

“For the Symphony I bring my bike, riding between each venue to check in,” explains Schoemaker. “On a night like that, I usually clock 35,000 steps.”

For the Opera, he employs a 70-person staff. At the Symphony, he’ll preside over 120 waiters, stewards, captains and a maitre ‘d. Yet his most difficult task? Guiding guests to take their table.

“Everyone’s catching up after summer so seating them is like herding cats,” he laughs. “But it’s crucial we beat the clock, getting everyone into the 8 p.m. performances. That’s the holy grail.”

Dede and Boaz always make for a glamorous shot.

How do I get the photographer’s attention?

On gala nights, society photographer Drew Altizer and his team work on a taut leash. They’re checking off the client’s shot-list of key patrons and prioritizing tight deadlines to numerous editorial outlets. Aside from five photographers, Altizer also employs on-site editors captioning images so every shot will be online by morning. “We’re happy to take a picture of anyone who wants one. But there are moments, especially during cocktails and dinner, when we’re really pressed for time.” If you do capture his eye, the best way to engage Altizer? Don’t turn your moment into a personal fashion shoot. With a laugh, Altizer shares his best photo advice:  “Don’t want it too much. And look amazing.”

Gala season can provoke the dread of wearing the same gown another patron is sporting — though it would be hard to match Karen Caldwell.

How can I avoid a gown faux pas?

For ladies, the most nerve-wracking gala decision is which designer du jour to wear. But their biggest fear: Will someone else wear that same gown?

To avoid this misstep (but really, the world will continue to spin on its axis), many turn to leading local designers including Lily Samii, Karen Caldwell and Yuka Uehara of Tokyo Gamine to ensure one-of-a-kind couture.

Determined to prevent these design doppelganger dilemmas, Boaz Mazor, the dashing and decades-long Oscar de la Renta exec who regularly alights here for trunk shows of the fashion house’s dazzling designs, follows a determined protocol.

“I never say, ‘You can’t buy that dress,’” explains Mazor. “But I gently advise that someone else purchased the same gown for the same event. And she’ll immediately ask, ‘Is it Dede (Wilsey)’?”

Mazor keeps his own list of who-bought-what for Symphony and Opera, then apprises sales associates of what’s been purchased. Loathe to kill a sale, Mazor will suggest how wonderful it would be if that dupe dress attends another event or guides shoppers to equally lovely choices.

“San Francisco is very special, there’s a gentlemen’s agreement between Saks and Neiman Marcus to avoid these mishaps,” notes Mazor. “You also have to be a politician, making sure not to offend anyone while, at the same time, making each client feels fantastic. That’s how we do it.”

Still these fashion faux pas occasionally occur. So make the best of it: Grab your designer-gown twin, smile brightly and take a photo together.

Max Boyer Glynn and Alex Chases at the Mid-Winter Gala. April 6, 2108.

Where do I go for hair and makeup?

There are many fine choices among the beauty counters in Union Square stores. However the most coveted appointment is with coiffure king Alex Chases, who, for 25 years, applies his signature soigné look to opening-night ladies.

The trick? Getting on his crowded calendar. Many clients book one year in advance. On gala days, Chases and his team minister to 25 clients. They also provide the whole enchilada: hair, makeup, jewelry advice — even how to walk into a room to best effect.

“These are special events for our city and people respond accordingly. For the Symphony, the vibe is high-energy, sleek, modern. Opera Ball is more dramatic, with a desire to echo the opera’s theme,” he explains. “For Opera, I usually recommend an updo to complement necklines and more opulent jewelry.”

Primetime, gala-day appointments are  between 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. But Chases prides himself that, even if a client arrives at 9 a.m., his styling for them will last all day. While he has a long roster of regulars, Chases’ now welcomes a younger gala clientele.

“I love seeing this new generation wanting to follow tradition of what is appropriate and relying on us for advice. I feel privileged in this career to share my experience,” he says. “It’s also a really fun time at the salon, yet detailed, precise and civilized. Then, it’s showtime!”

It’s OK to Instagram

Instagram is a powerful tool that trumpets glam images and interest for these cultural organizations. For the last five years, both the Symphony and Opera create specific geo-tags and hashtags to highlight their fetes. However photos or videos during the performance remain verboten. Holster your trigger finger and absorb the sublime musical moment.

Just remember

The cardinal sin? Switching place cards to a more advantageous seat. Your host already sweated hours strategically arranging their guests. If you sneak this move, you will be long remembered — and not fondly.

Talk to each dinner partner, right and left, typically split between the first and second courses. You are not here to make a new best friend; this exercise is a gentle pas-de-deux of politesse. Impressed by your social IQ, your host may welcome you again at her table.

We’ve observed high net-worth individuals who wave off waiters from clearing their plates like flies. No matter how delectable the dinner, this is not a leisurely restaurant experience. Keep to the pace so the music can begin on time.

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