Susan Lehrman and the Embassy of China hosted the Washington National Opera’s signature annual benefit and also honored Placido Domingo for his long service.
By John Arundel
Photos by Tony Powell
It made perfect sense that the year’s top-end social event, The Washington National Opera Ball, would be held this year at the city’s largest embassy (The People’s Republic of China), representing not only the world’s largest country but also home to the world’s largest number of city opera troupes (4,000 at last count), and these days perhaps the most important trading and diplomatic partner of the United States.
Competing against herself to outperform last year’s social tour de force at the Embassy of Russia, chairwoman Susan E. Lehrman collaborated with envoys at the I.M. Pei-designed chancery to host the opera’s signature annual benefit.
Mrs. Lehrman and Ambassador Zhang Yesui and his wife Chen Naiqing played hosts to more than 800 guests in black-tie and ball gowns in a dizzying spectacle that took guests on a journey through contemporary and ancient China, and honored the opera’s departing artistic director, Plácido Domingo, for his decade and a half leading the WNO.
The event raised a record $2.6 million for Opera programming and educational programs. Mrs. Lehrman, a well-known D.C. philanthropist, underwrote the entire cost of the gala, estimated at more than $500,000.
It was the fourth consecutive year they planned and underwrote the ball, attended by a who’s who of social Washington that also included Supreme Court justices, senators and other notables from the worlds of diplomacy, politics, media, business and the arts.
The 2011 Opera Ball sold out a week in advance, even given a package dinner/ball cost ticket which started at $1,000, and a limited number of ball-only tickets sold for $500. Sponsorships for individuals and corporations started at $5,000, with Mars, Inc., Chevron, ExxonMobil, U.S. Trust and Wells Fargo serving as major corporate donors.
Every effort was made to dazzle guests, including laser-light shows, artificial fog, transplanted Bonsai trees, thousands of hanging Chinese lanterns, costumed Chinese artists and a massive fou drum played at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Ceremonies and flown in from Beijing for the festivities.
Dessert tables were stacked with Chinese delicacies, including delicately carved jade chocolate boxes filled hand-dipped truffles, chocolates and bon bons, as well as chocolate chopsticks, candied gingers and plum blossom fondant cakes.
“The Opera Ball provides an unparalleled opportunity to experience the long history and splendor of Chinese culture and performing arts,” Amb. Yesui said. “We’re especially happy that this year’s ball pays tribute to Director Placido Domingo and his legacy with the Washington National Opera. With his many visits to China, Mr. Domingo has brought world-class performances to many Chinese audiences.”
For his part, Domingo recalled fondly his numerous collaborative visits to Shanghai and Beijing to help the Chinese stage operas, and called the evening an “emotional moment” in his long and storied career as one of the world’s greatest tenors and conductors, an eight-time Grammy Award winner known globally for his versatile and strong voice.
Domingo will conduct 14 final performances in May and June as WNO’s General Director, serving up old favorites like Iphigenie en Tauride and Don Pasquale, then will return to L.A. where his contract with the Los Angeles Opera has been extended through the 2012-2013 season.
“It’s a tremendous emotional moment but I don’t want to be sad,” Domingo said. “Fifteen years is very important in the life cycle of a person. … To build a company that’s greater than it was 15 years ago is one of my greatest accomplishments.”
Performers serenaded Domingo with songs and performances scripted for the occasion. Italian bass-baritone Simone Alberghini, a renowned international opera singer currently appearing with the WNO, serenaded Domingo with a song written especially for the occasion to the tune of “Thanks for the Memories.”
Joining him in song were current and former members of WNO’s Domingo Cafritz Young Artist Program, including Yingxi Zhang, a tenor from Shanghai who studied with WNO for three years and returned from China to pay tribute to his mentor Maestro Domingo.
“It is my greatest hope that Opera Ball will promote cross-cultural awareness and understanding, and build relationships that will benefit the Opera well into the future,” Susan Lehrman said. “This year’s Ball is all the more exciting because of our guest of honor. Maestro Domingo is, quite possibly, the greatest goodwill ambassador the art form of opera has ever known.”
The evening began with private diplomatic dinners hosted by 30 embassies throughout the city. A longstanding and beloved Opera Ball tradition, the dinners served as an elegant and unique precursor to the ball, which began at 9:30 p.m.
Embassies hosting dinners this year included France, Great Britain, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Mexico, Egypt, Singapore, Morocco, Ireland, Luxembourg, Peru, India, Brunei, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Colombia, Monaco and the Organization of American States.
As guests streamed into the main reception hall of the Chinese chancery they were greeted by costumed Chinese dancers and presented with Plum Blossom Cocktails and modern Chinese hors d’oeuvres before a stunning laser light show which concluded with a stunning image of the Forbidden City. As a Chinese gong sounded, guests descended a grand staircase and entered into meticulously designed scenes of ancient China.
“We had five days to completely transform the chancery,” Lehrman recalled. “It was nothing short of a herculean effort by the team here.”
On the lower-level of the Chancery, guests passed through a pagoda before entering the “Palace of Established Happiness,” a Chinese garden with Bonsai trees and rock formations. Frett-work moon arches and Chinese Foo Dogs guarded the entrance to the grand ballroom, which was transformed into a Tea House, the traditional setting for entertainment in ancient China.
Elegantly appointed rooms, each with its own Chinese theme, delicacies and entertainment, included The Tribute Room (Tapestry Room), where guests penned personal greetings on a scroll constructed of wood with blown-glass finials, crafted especially for Domingo to commemorate his long tenure with the WNO. A video tribute was shown on two large plasma screens along with costumes from the Peking Opera.
In the Tea Room, guests were seated and sampled a variety of savory teas, ordering from a menu of Chinese sweets. Next door in the Peking Duck Gallery, ten chefs prepared and carved 20 varietals of traditional Peking Duck, China’s national dish. Chef Jimmy Zhang, the renowned L.A.-based master carver, demonstrated skillful and artistic creations of fruit and vegetable carvings, with many ballgoers lugging home Zhang’s exquisite watermelon carvings.
In the ball room, guests danced to the music of Floating Opera with Glenn Pearson. Later in the evening, 6ix Wire Project—the East-meets-West classical crossover group—performed excerpts from “Carmen” and other beloved operas.”
Throughout the evening, members of the Washington-based Peking Opera Workshop dressed in elaborate costumes gave informal performances, spotlighting the authentic musical and theatrical techniques unique to Peking opera.
Twice during the evening, opera singers from China’s Tianjin Youth Peking Opera Troupe performed traditional Peking Opera favorites in the auditorium.
Departing guests strolled through a tunnel of 999 red Chinese lanterns, the symbols of good fortune. Favors included a ball program book and a paperweight featuring Domingo in the title role of The First Emperor, the contemporary opera by Academy Award-winning composer Tan Dun, as well as a bound tribute book dedicated to Domingo’s tenure, and an elegant pen holder that was a gift of the embassy’s cultural office.
“Thank you, Mrs. Lehrman, for allowing us all to experience Chinese culture,” Ambassador Yesiu said. “What’s the encore for next year?”