His Excellency the Ambassador of the People's Republic of China Zhang Yesui and Madame Chen Naiqing, Susan E. Lehrman, Plácido Domingo and his wife, Marta Ornelas. Photograph by Kyle Gustasfson.In just a few short years, ball chair Susan E. Lehrman has transformed the annual spring Opera Ball into the city’s most extravagant and must-attend event of the year. Saturday’s event at the Chinese Embassy was no exception, with town cars, BMWs, and Mercedes wrapped around the block in Van Ness as black tie-clad guest spilled forth for an evening of exotic entertainment. Lehrman, who underwrites the full cost of the event (estimated in the mid-six figures) to maximize the nearly $1,000-a-head event’s benefit to the Opera, has had luck encouraging embassies not known for their openness—Russia last year, China this year—to allow her to transform their public spaces into foreign worlds filled with food, decorations, copious amounts of high-end alcohol, and a general, care-free Fin de siècle escapism.
After dazzling laser light shows greeted guests in the foyer—complete with so many lasers and hard-working smoke machines that it required three portable generators set up in the street to power the performance—and clips of the Beijing Olympics projected on the ceilings, guests were ushered downstairs in the vast new embassy to a series of rooms decorated floor-to-ceiling in traditional Chinese style. While this year’s Opera Ball might not have had the over-the-top opulence of last year’s Russian ball (with its caviar and Fabergé egg-themed cakes) attendees of the Opera Ball will not soon forget the Peking Duck room, where traditionally attired chefs sliced expertly through hundreds of the crispy fowl. Other rooms featured a traditional Chinese tea service, a tribute to Placido Domingo, and calligraphers signing guests names onto parchment as a party favor. Incongruously to the Asian surroundings, a big band played classics like “Moon River” in the main ballroom while guests twirled away on the dance floor and others watched from the sidelines where four separate dessert buffets and two bars kept the crowd convivial. For those who couldn’t be troubled to stop at one of the nearly dozen bars throughout the embassy, an army of waitstaff provided on-the-spot trays of cocktails and refills of wine and Moet champagne.
Although the evening began early for most attendees with private dinner at assorted embassies across town, the event, which traditionally marks the end of the spring social season, ran into the wee hours of Sunday: the first opera performances didn’t even begin until 11:45 PM at the ball, when Opera board chair Ken Feinberg called the evening to order, with remarks following by the Chinese ambassador and others. Guests ranged from arts patrons like Adrienne Arsht, Vicki Sant, and Lucky Roosevelt to government leaders like Senator Patrick Leahy and Chief Justice John Roberts, as well as many members of the diplomatic corps.