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Let the Magic Begin

Jane Mudge, Riccardo Benavides, Shannon Cronan, and Kathy Huber.

On Friday, September 7, San Francisco Opera’s 96th Season will begin with an Opening Night performance of two one-act verismo operas, Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana, with its extraordinary orchestral string intermezzo, and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, a magic show of clowns with arguably the most famously heart-wrenching 40 seconds in opera (“Ridi Pagliaccio, sul tuo amore infrato! Ridi del duol, che t’avvelena il cor!” or, “Laugh clown, at your broken love! Laugh at the grief that poisons your heart!”) Most famous tenors have recorded Pagliacci’s signature piece, Vesti la guibba.

Maryam Muduroglu, Riccardo Benavides, and Courtney Labe.

Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci (see sidebar for synopsis), coloquially known as Cav/Pag, are Italian operas, often presented together and staged in Italy. However, San Francisco’s production this season will take place in Buenos Aires. Famed Argentine tenor José Cura, known for his intense portrayals of the leading tenor roles in both portions of Cav/Pag (he also portrayed Don José in a recent production of Carmen), has emerged as a renowned director, designer, and conductor. His production of this double-bill sets both operas on the Caminito in the La Boca district of Buenos Aires, a historically Italian barrio known for its color-ful row houses and tango performances. Think Tenderloin with a lot of color/graffiti and action in the streets.

SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock enthusiastically relates: This opening night duo of Cav/Pag is a thrilling start to our season. The operas are filled with powerful emotion and strong convictions. The stories journey into the human condition seething with bold and raw passion, jealousy, and heartbreak.” Susan Malott, managing director of the San Francisco Opera Guild, adds: “Not only is our Opera Ball one of the most celebrated opening nights in the United States, 100% of the revenue supports the combined education programs of the Opera Guild and the Opera, which reach over 60,000 students throughout the Bay Area.”

It’s an evening of glamour for the good cause of educating young people in the art of opera and music.

Lights, Camera, Action—It’s Showtime!

No, wait! It’s not yet on the opera stage, but showtime for several hundred staff who’ve worked tirelessly for days, even months, to produce all aspects of what will be a specta-cular evening. Indeed, the opera is not the only place with magic. If you have ever wondered, “What does it take?” allow me to tell you a little bit about it.

It Takes A Village

Opera fans are familiar with the glitz and awe of the opera opening night ritual—the elegant tent, the fantastic dinner and wines, the lavish décor, and the beautiful people attending the gala itself, with the ladies often wearing over-the-top name designer gowns (plan-ned as much as a year ahead). Many enjoy this spectacle through the lenses of brilliant photographer Drew Altizer and his team of eight skilled photographers, who, during the evening, capture over 10,000 images that are edited in a studio on site. Simultaneously, they’re being captioned in Manila to be press-ready for the next morning! Remember the days of the Polaroid for that instant picture?

J Riccardo Benavides of Ideas-Events, chief magician in guise of event planner, oversees this scene wielding his magical well-trained wand. Riccardo is an avid traveler, embracing the philosophy, “Never stay anywhere longer than three days,” and it is on those journeys that he gains perspective and inspiration for his designs. He prefers old-world and classic European décor. Riccardo understands the event business from the inside, having worked at Hyatt Hotels in food and beverage. “I began to style events for the hotel’s corporate clients and realized that this is what I wanted,” he explains. “So, Ideas-Events was born.”

Opera Guild chairs Kathy Huber and Shannon Cronan have worked tirelessly for a year to plan and organize this special event. Their dedication and creative ideas have guided Riccardo to produce yet another showstopper. And what better way to gather inspiration than by traveling to the source? So, off they went to Buenos Aires. The barrios of La Boca were vibrant with people, mannequin-dressed storefronts, multicolored buildings, and lots of tango.

However, the opera ball needed a bit more, so, what else? A palace came to mind. The Casa Rosada, the office of the president of Argentina, is an ornate, Italianate rose-colored building with elabo-rate columns, beautiful detailed cornices, and a stunning black and white diamond-patterned floor. “We fell in love with the whole scene immediately,” says Benavides. “It was such an inspiration for Viva la Noche! The color alone, a lush peachy rose, was stunning. The color on the stucco of the actual Casa Rosada was actually made from a mixture of ox blood and mud. We managed to recreate this rose hue (no oxen were killed in this project) and had hundreds of yards of textured fabric made in Hong Kong. Our spectacular entrance will look like an Argentine Palace—not the tent that it is.” Benavides believes that the first ‘wow’ impression walking into an event should capture the mood of the evening.

He explains to Gentry how it all comes together: “We start planning about a year ahead with a discovery meeting, where the Gala chairs present their concepts for the Opening Night and their expectations and ideas for the final product. These meetings are very important to understand their vision, based on the stage design of the opera. It is important to have a cohesive transition from dinner to performance to the after-party. The weeks leading up to the event are crucial and labor intensive.”

The Countdown

The installation begins about nine days before, with at least half a dozen delivery trucks unloading throughout the day. About 80 people—vendors and the design team —make this event happen.

About 8 or 9 Days Out: Tent installation begins. Flooring and carpet are placed. Ceiling installation begins. Phase I of Lighting is installed. 5 Days Out: Labor Day—a skeleton crew will follow through on the previous days’ installations. 4 Days Out: Lighting and ceiling design continue to be installed. 3 Days Out: Foyer entrance installation begins. 2 Days Out: Chairs, tabletops, and flowers are placed. Floral arrangements are created. Courtyard décor and specially created entrance decor are placed. Final lighting edits. The Day Of: All-aspect final edits, flower retouching, carpet detailing. Fire Marshall site visit and inspection.

“It’s like having a baby—all that work for 9 months, and now it’s here,” says Benavides. “Our goal at Opera Ball is to create a memorable experience for as many people as possible.”

Cocktails, Hors d’oeuvres, Dinner, & After Party Buffet

Lucas Schoemaker

Dinner for 800 tonight? No problem! Lucas Schoemaker and his team at Dan McCalls Catering and Events have created a unique art form called event catering, and have built an avid following. They have catered Opera Ball (on and off) for the past 20 years. Gentry asked Schoemaker to what does he attribute his success? “Timing is crucial; people don’t like to sit too long,” he says. “We work efficiently and thoughtfully observing the room at all times and making sure the ambiance and the timing is always right—it’s a party.”


Their planning for Viva la Noche! began eight months ago with discussion with opera chairs about culinary preferences and details. The dinner was then carefully planned, and tastings got under way to refine the menu. The weeks leading up to the gala every year are executed with precision. Schoemaker notes, “Four months out, we make sure our infrastructure is ready; all plates, utensils, glassware must be in top shape. We have a 48,000-square-foot warehouse where we have the means to do a dinner for 15,000 guests.”

The Countdown

Josip Martinovic and Mitchell Faber

One Week Out: Contact purveyors to make sure they have all the quantities needed for the event. 5 Days Out: Finalize the staffing. It takes 30 chefs, overseen by highly skilled and creative Executive Chef Josip Martinovic, to prep and cook all the food presented at the gala. 4 Days Out: Start sending setup crew to the site. 3 Days Out: Non-perishable food items begin to arrive. 2 Days Out: The real cutting and prepping begins—all hands on deck! This is also the day when the first trucks come to the site of the gala. The on-site kitchen is built, large ovens and stoves are delivered. Tables are put in place so that the lighting team can pin-point each table. Day of the Event: With a team including 1 Maitre’d, 4 Room Supervisors, 20 Captains, 45 Waiters, 30 chefs, and 8 Stewards, tables and bars are set up. Most importantly, the entire staff studies who is sitting where and any special needs required.

How do you serve 800 guests? “Maitre’d Ben Trotzer oversees everything,” Schoemaker says. “The room is divided into four spheres with a designated supervisor for each section. There are also floaters who troubleshoot the entire area. Sergio Arroyo, a familiar ‘floater’ face, is always ready to go the extra mile at any events. I would not miss this exciting evening for anything.”

Fun Fact
A historical fact about Pagliacci is that San Francisco Opera’s “try-out” season in 1922 was held on the grounds of Stanford University. Opera founder Gaetano Merola presented three operas as an experiment: Carmen, Faust, and Pagliacci. All three operas were met with overwhelming enthusiasm by the public and paved the way for the community to formalize the creation of San Francisco Opera and its inaugural season in September 1923 at Civic Auditorium. Therefore, Pagliacci is in the Company’s DNA and a crucial part of its origin story.

The biggest challenge— Dinner Seating

Opera Ball seating is a collaborative effort between the chairs, the brilliant and dedicated Opera Guild President Jane Mudge, and senior management of the Opera and the Guild. In other words, this awesome task also takes a village. Malott tells Gentry, “We think about every single person at the table to make sure that the seating arrangement will give them an exceptional experience. We have four different ticket levels and begin seating with the highest contribution level first.”

Much time and thought is spent selecting the right table for each person to give everyone a fun and festive experience. Benavides adds, “We want to make this a special evening for everyone, even if you don’t come to dinner. The whole evening should be a fabulous experience. If it is, I know you’ll be back!”

Riccardo Benavides by the numbers:
How much/how many?

Staff — 8 Office, 10 Warehouse
Workers for the Opera Event — 40
Months of Planing — 9
Days for Setup — 9
Hours for Setup — 60
Guests — 800
Tables — 100
Flowers — 1,200
Plates — 5,000
Glasses — 3,000
Bottles of Wine — 250 Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Roederer Estate
Months in Warehouse to Create the Scenery — 2
Time Your Staff Arrives Before the Gala — 8:00 am
Time the Staff Leaves — 5:00 am
Number of Events Benavides’ Firm Does Per Year — 45
Times They Designed This Event — 8

The SF Opera Ball Dinner
By the Numbers

Seafood & Meat
Crab— 60 lbs.Oregon Dungeness
Prawns — 100 lbs.Vietnamese
Beef — 300 lbs. Certified Angus Filet Center Cut Tenderloin


Micro Carrots — 2,000
English Peas — 60 lbs.
Brentwood Corn — 80 lbs.
Baby Zucchini — 1,200
Sunburst Squash — 1,200
Baby Turnips — 1,200
Carrots — 1,200 (Bunched)
Raspberries — 50 lbs.
Strawberries — 50 lbs.
Baby Arugula — 25 lbs.
Palm Hearts — 15 lbs.


Cavalleria Rusticana


Turiddu, a soldier; Lola, his former fiancée, now married to another; Alfio, Lola’s husband; Santuzza, a woman seduced by Turiddu.


Love, betrayal, jealousy, and revenge. What could possibly go wrong? Turiddu returns from military service and finds his fiancée, Lola, married to Alfio. He has an affair with her. Alfio becomes suspicious, as does Turiddu’s girlfriend Santuzza, who tells her husband of the affair. Now comes desire for revenge. Much of the opera takes place at Easter Sunday Procession, or going and coming from church. The ritual challenge of a duel occurs. I won’t spoil the ending, but, you know, it’s opera, so somebody has to die.



A touring group of actors and clowns, including Tonio a clown; Canio (Pagliacci); Canio’s wife Nedda; Nedda’s lover Silvio; Beppe, an actor; and Villagers.


Suspicion and jealousy abound. This can’t end well, but the music is amazing. A group of touring actors arrives to perform for the townspeople in the square. Canio hears gossip about his wife’s infidelity and warns everyone not to flirt with her. Too late: Nedda has a lover, Silvio; they plan to run away together but are seen by Canio, who vows to catch them. After this scene, and while putting on his clown make-up, Canio sings the world-famous aria “Vesti la guibba.” The villagers assemble to see the play, Pagliaccio and Columbina, starring both Canio and Nedda, which is ironically based on their personal situation. Canio can’t take it and on stage demands to know the identity of Nedda’s lover. The audience is confused; it’s starting to look awfully real. Canio stabs Nedda and Silvio, who rushed to help her. Famous last words: “The comedy is ended.”



San Francisco Opera Ball 2018 | Viva la Noche! | Friday, September 7

Cocktail Reception – 5pm • War Memorial Opera Hose

Dinner – 6pm • Opera Ball Tented Pavilion

Performance – 8pm • War Memorial Opera House

Post-Performance Celebration • 11pm – Opera Ball Tented Pavilion


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