SF Opera Gala is Grand for Grandees

Lovers in Tyrolean castles were hardly on the minds of many who arrived at the War Memorial Opera House for the "Moonlight and Music" Gala Opening of the Opera, the kickoff to the San Francisco social season. But the valet parkers in jaunty Alpine fedoras posed a subtle reminder that the evening's opera, Verdi's "Luisa Miller" was about the loss of a beloved - just as the evening celebrated the retirement of beloved General Director David Gockley, whose absence will be acutely felt. Gockley's decade of tenure has been a resounding success, rife with innovation and modernization that has continued to keep the venerable organization at the forefront of the finer arts. As guests arrived to weather a phalanx of photo flashes and air kisses, the specially carpeted steps of the Opera House seemed like the center of this particular universe. New gowns and the occasional new visage were greeted with equal enthusiasm, while old friendships and older jewels sparkled in the final rays of early-evening sun. Love was in the air, and a grand evening was in store.

Cocktails were held in the foyer, which was dominated by an enormous sphere of pink and purple roses. A grand piano was playing in the one-night garden in the South Court, where a fountain and hedges had magically appeared. Waiters circulated with trays of delicate hors d'oeuvres and flutes of sparkling wine. When it was time to dine, guests entered a vast tent masquerading as a castle, past a phalanx of historical figures and gilded mirrors, onto a 'marble' foyer and then into a hall festooned with chandeliers and hunting tropies (of a politically correct kind - no deer were harmed in this décor.) J. Riccardo Benavides vision of dinner in a gilded Mitteleuropa manse was fully realized, with elaborate table settings counterbalanced by simple arrangements of pink flowers, and a single candle in a crystal candelabra. When asked if his décor inspiration was derived from a specific Tyrolian castle, Benevides provided the ultimate Silicon Valley answer, "Oh, I just googled 'castle.,' " he smiled, "and chose the prettiest parts."

McCall's menu was fit for royalty, with a salad of roasted nectarines and Maine lobster, followed by Tyrolean braised short ribs with spaetzle, and a Alto-Adige calorie punch of Tirimasu and Austrian Chocolate Roulade, accompanied by Roederer Estate sparkling wine and Grgich Hills Estate Chardonnay and Merlot. Then it was on to appreciate the saga of poor Luisa, who loved and lost and then really lost it, letting go of her prince and his castle, and just about everything else, for love.

The traditional opening remarks were ably assigned to Opera Association Board Chairman John Gunn and President Keith Geeslin, who encouraged a resounding standing ovation for General Director David Gockley, only the sixth to hold the lead since 1923. Even before the curtain, the audience was in a swoon over the lavish floral garland that ringed the box seats; mastermind Stanlee Gatti always delivers this visual encore with abundant enthusiasm. Once underway, the well-fed audience settled in to watch Verdi's doomed heroine, gloriously played by Leah Crocetto, soar to Conductor Nicola Luisotti's beat, with direction by Laurie Feldman and Production by Francesca Zambello. Zambello came onstage after the curtain call to receive the Opera Medal, the highest honor awarded by the Company to an artistic professional, this time for her direction of numerous powerful and innovative productions. The combination of Gockley and Zambello has been a boon to San Francisco audiences; many hope they will both continue their association with SF Opera, and their collaboration in some form.

When the last applause had faded, many expected the audience would, too. But the allure of the afterparty proved powerful, and a significant number returned to the newly reconfigured Opera Ball Pavilion Tent, which Benevides and his Bavarian elves had transformed into a party palace. Savory and sweet and caffeinated stations appeared for nourishment, and Dede Wilsey's favorite band Bob Hardwicke Sound played tunes that spanned the generations and the dancefloor. The old and new guard stayed up well past their normal bedtimes to swan and shimmy, getting every last look at their dates and dresses. Only when the clock had struck the hour of a new day did the lovelies consider taking their leave. While Luisa may have loved and lost, these heroes and heroines had found their courtiers and their milieu, and they were loathe to leave until the fairytale ended ever after.

And who are the lovelies that went to the Ball? Co-Chairs Karen Kubin and Jane Mudge in Marchesa, President Charlot Malin in Carolina Herrera selected by the designer herself, Opening Weekend Grand Sponsor Dede Wilsey, escorted by Boaz Mazor and Trevor Traina, Leslie and George Hume, sponsor Dianne and Tad Taube, Denise Sobel Littlefield, Carol and Dixon Doll, Elizabeth Pang Fullerton, Austin and Sara Hills, Pamela Joyner and Alfred Giuffrida, Arlene Inch, Alan Morrell, Mary and Bill Poland, Pamala and Ted Deikel, John Capizzi, Barbara Brown, Karen Caldwell, Sandra Farris, Ann and Daniel Girard, Gretchen Kimball, Teresa and Mark Medearis, Stephanie and Jim Marver, Dorothy and Brad Jeffries, Vera Carpeneti, Delia Erlich, Robert Mailer Anderson, Kelly Carter, Larissa Archer with the silver fashionista Tziporah Salamon, Raj Singh and Renata Anderson, Roger and Ruth Wu, Susan Dunlevy, Victoire Reynal, Audrey Cooper and Kirk Seward, Robin Collins, Sallie Huntting, Afreen Wahab, Yuan Yuan Tan in a sleek Armani pantsuit, Jack Calhoun and Trent Norris, Dr. Carolyn Chang in white Andrew Gn and Allison Speer in black Gn, Lucy Buchanan, Anna Weinberg and James Nicholas, Claudia Ross, David and Marybeth Shimmon, David Laudon and Randy Laroche, Maria Pitcairn, Carol Benz, and the always flawless Maryam Muduroglu. The best-dressed gentlemen represented, with Alan Malouf, Christopher Verdosci, Greg Lopez, Alex Chases, Andrew Hinek, Kai Tan, Tim Wu, Jorge Maumer, Jacques Pantanzes and Joel Goodrich looking particularly refined. The house of Alexander McQueen made a strong showing with exclusive designs for Sarah Somberg and Christine Suppes, on Carol Bonnie, and a striking black and silver floral intarsia on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose husband Paul Pelosi was one of the few stalwarts maintaining the Opening Night tradition of white tie. Sobiah Shaikh wore Roland Mouret , Afsaneh Akhtari wore Pavoni, and Deepa Pakanathian wore Ruben Singer.

Vasily Vein continued to dress his muse Sonya Molodetskaya, along with Clara Shayevich, Rumiko McCarthy and Brenda Zarate. Yuka Uehara and Karen Caldwell both appeared in gowns of their own design, as did Lily Samii, who also adorned Daru Kawalkowski. Jennifer Walske, Paula Carano, Komal Shah, Lillian Jacks, and of course Dede Wilsey all represented the memory of Oscar de la Renta, whose designs were so well-suited to the grand entrance. The evening and arias may have ended, but the gorgeous gowns, and their gala-goers, triumphantly carry on to support the Opera, and the idea of it all.