Parties: Curtains Up

Written by Catherine Bigelow | Photography by Drew Altizer

On November 30, music lovers clamored to the War Memorial Opera House, accented with the elegant scenery of San Francisco Opera’s recent production of Così fan tutte. Although the venue was empty, 250 deep-pocketed donors took their seats at tables laden with lush floral arrangements by J. Riccardo Benavides to celebrate the glamorous in-person return of An Evening on the Stage.

The cherished gala event was established in 2013 during the Opera’s 75th anniversary as a salute to the organization’s star patrons. Charlotte Shultz, longtime chief of protocol and War Memorial board trustee, who passed away just three days later on December 3, was the gala’s inaugural honoree.

This year, led by event cochairs and Opera Guild members Karin Kubin and Victoria Weatherford as well as guild president Maryam Muduroglu, the glamorous fundraising fete honored late opera trustee Jeannik Méquet Littlefield and her children, Denise Littlefield Sobel and Ed Littlefield Jr., with the 2021 Crescendo Award for their family’s half-century of support. In 2006, that support included Jeannik Littlefield’s historic, unrestricted gift of $35 million to the SF Opera. At the time, it was the largest such donation from a single individual to an American opera company.

Noting the matriarch’s native French joie de vivre, Kubin fondly recalled, “Jeannik Littlefield enjoyed a very cold, very dry Bombay martini, every evening at 6 o’clock. She stipulated no olives. Why? She said, ‘They take up room.’”

Black-tie guests who scored tickets — there was a long waiting list — delighted over cocktails in the grand marble opera house foyer, which was followed by a delectable four-course McCalls dinner savored onstage. Maestro Dick Bright and his orchestra supplied tunes for postdinner dancing.

The opera company also featured its own roster of musical stars, including 15-year-old San Francisco Opera Guild Opera Scout mezzo-soprano Amarech Mendez and San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows baritone Timothy Murray and mezzo-soprano Simone McIntosh.

And Ed Littlefield, dashingly dressed in a black-tie kilt, wowed the crowd with a medley of French songs he performed on a harp guitar in honor of his mother’s heritage.

“During the pandemic, we kept the music playing — still reaching 4,000 students, virtually,” noted Caroline Altman, the Opera Guild’s director of education. “Music not only feeds the soul and activates the mind but it’s also a great source of healing. The guild has been honoring and encouraging young artistic voices, of all backgrounds and experiences, in the Bay Area for the past 80 years. This is our mission.”

The guild’s educational programs currently reach 215 Bay Area schools, serving some 64,000 students.

But the Littlefields, whose patriarch, the late Edmund Wattis Littlefield, was a scion of Utah Construction & Mining founders, are not yet done giving: Denise Sobel announced a new $200,000 gift to the opera’s recently established department of Diversity, Equity and Community. The gift will fund staff salaries and underwrite the company’s new Open Opera Project, an initiative defining DEC’s goals and objectives.

SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock paid tribute to the dynamic support of Denise Sobel, who has long represented her family’s opera interests: honoring her mother with refurbishments to the Intermezzo Littlefield Lounge; sustaining company members through pandemic giving; and now championing artistic diversity.

“Something special happens when philanthropy passes from generation to generation. It’s been one of my incredible joys to see with what positivity, generosity and authenticity Denise has taken forward her family’s impact on this stage,” toasted Shilvock. “I adore creating art with Denise: feeling her vital energy for imagining what can be, then experiencing what she does to ensure that vision becomes reality.”

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