Galas Galore! A Preview Of Next Week’s SF Opera Ball

The ball marks the start of Nicola Luisotti's last season with the Opera
The ball marks the start of Nicola Luisotti’s last season with the Opera

Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

For San Francisco’s most sophisticated denizens, summer is a relatively tame time. A quick glance at society photographer Drew Altizer’s website and it’s obvious there is not much going on, and when it comes to galas and other charitable events, summer is the off season. Plus, the cold and foggy weather is unbearable and many people spend July and August outside of the city. Public relations guru Allison Speer summers in Sun Valley, Idaho. Interior designer Ken Fulk spends every weekend between May and October at his Cape Cod beach house in Provincetown. The Trainas split their time between Rhode Island and Napa. However, come September everyone is back in the Bay for the official start of the social season. Table invitations are sent, gowns are purchased, suits are tailored, and blowout appointments are made—it’s gala time!

The one-two punch of the Opera and Symphony openings are arguably the biggest events of the season. In October, the annual Fall Antique and Arts Show, a bash that brings internationally acclaimed decorists into town, takes place. In anticipation of the thrill that is fall in San Francisco, we’re previewing these three very important charity events. First up: The Opera Ball.

Puccini's "Turandot." Production by visual artist David Hockney. Puccini's Turandot; production by visual artist David Hockney.
Puccini’s Turandot; production by visual artist David Hockney.

Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The Opera Ball 2017 at the Imperial Palace takes place on Friday, September 8. The gala celebrates the opening of the company’s 95th season and it promises to be an extravagant and dazzling evening. The performance is Giacomo Puccini’s Turandot, a majestic tale set in ancient Peking. The title character is a gorgeous, but cold-hearted princess who does not want to be controlled by a male counterpart. In order to ensure that she never has to marry, she’s crafted three riddles that must be solved by every possible suitor. If they fail to answer the questions, they are beheaded. An exiled prince, blinded by Turandot’s beauty, proclaims his love for her and promptly solves her mysteries. He challenges her to find out his name by morning, saying that if she does, he will die. It’s a passionate love story with a spectacular set and well known arias.

Turandot was the final opera written by Puccini and it also marks the final opera opening ball performance for the company’s music director, Nicola Luisotti. At the end of the 2017-18 season Luisotti will leave his post with the SF Opera. In recognition of his 12-year tenure, Luisotti is this year’s gala honoree. “While he’s been conducting in San Francisco, he’s created so many memorable performances for our audiences. It’s a real pleasure to be able to honor him because he’s so exceptionally talented and he’s positively charming,” Jane Mudge, the Opera Guild’s president told Haute Living on a chilly August afternoon. “He made his debut in 2005 and became our music director in 2009. I went back and I looked—and he’s conducted over 40 operas and concerts for the San Francisco Opera. That’s a lot when you think about the amount of work they do in the seasons. Our patrons look forward to the tradition of seeing him on the podium opening night.”

Opera Ball 2017 gala co-chairs Courtney Labe (left) and Maryam Muduroglu (right) with San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti
Opera Ball 2017 gala co-chairs Courtney Labe (left) and Maryam Muduroglu (right) with San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti

Photo Credit: Valentina Simi/San Francisco Opera

Patrons can also look forward to illuminating performances by some of the opera world’s top talents, including Austrian soprano Martina Serafin in the title role, American tenor Brian Jagde as Calaf, American soprano Toni Marie Palmertree as Liù, and American bass Raymond Aceto as Timur. English artist David Hockney is behind the set design and Garnett Bruce is the show’s director. However, the night is more than a sensational performance, it’s also a spectacular ball. “The ball is really one of our finest traditions in the Opera.” Mudge, who chaired the ball two years ago, explains. “We have two amazing co-chairs, Courtney Labe, who lives on the Peninsula, and Maryam Muduroglu, who lives in San Francisco. They’re managing the details from décor to ticket sales, and they’ve been really working all year to build the enthusiasm and the support for this cultural and social milestone.”

Event designer J. Riccardo Benavides is the mastermind who will transform a pavilion adjacent to the War Memorial Opera Building into an Imperial Palace. “This is one of the best things about being president: You get to work with the chairs and I saw a sneak preview of the décor,” Mudge gushes excitedly. “It is the most amazing décor for the tent. It’s such an elegant view of the Summer Palaces in China. I think you’re going to be blown away. He’s just pulled out all the stops. You’ll feel like you’ve been transported to these Imperial Palaces. I can’t help but really be excited about it in that moment when people walk into the tent and it’ll just take their breath away.” Guests can expect interactive elements and plenty of fanciful surprises. At last year’s French-inspired themed ball, guests were invited to snap photos with beautiful white poodles.

The decor in the Opera Ball Pavilion at last year's event
The decor in the Opera Ball pavilion at last year’s event

Photo Credit: Drew Altizer

The actual evening of the ball is orchestrated like a fine-tuned ballet. The event begins promptly at 5 p.m. with a cocktail reception in the Beaux Arts foyer of the Opera House. One of Mudge’s favorite memories of the ball is the start to the night when SF’s finest arrive in their finery. “In 2015, I co-chaired with my dear friend, Karen Kubin. Right before 5 p.m., when the guests were to arrive, we decided to go out on the front steps of the War Memorial Opera House and greet the guests. It was such a thrill to see the arrivals. There was such excitement in the air! There was a real joyful spirit, and I’ll never forget that feeling. It just was an incredible evening. And the evening just started off with the right feeling, and I think people had just a wonderful time.” At 6 p.m., the 750 guests will move to the Imperial Palace pavilion for dinner by McCalls Catering and Events. The ball has introduced a partnership with Craig and Kathryn Hall and Hall Wines will be poured at the dinner. At 8 p.m., guests move into the theater for Turandot. Afterward, the festivities continue into the wee hours of the night with cocktails, savories, and sweets in the tent. The band Pop Rocks is sure to get the lively crowd dancing.

Proceeds fund the Opera Guild’s education programs and other initiatives of the company including interactive workshops for kids and the Aria Festival where children write and produce original operas. “We started bringing students to the main stage for opera 78 years ago,” Mudge says. “We provide increasingly substantial in-school programs—a lot of it fills a gap when schools eliminate music instruction from the curriculum.”

It’s sure to be a night to remember, so get your tickets now before it’s too late.