It turns out billionaires can be just like everyone else—they want to be up front when the big act hits the stage. This particular event was not a rock concert but the Opera Ball, and the big act in question none other than Vice President Joe Biden. A handful of Washington-area billionaires pressed to the front of a virtual black-tie mosh pit to be closest to the Vice President when he made a surprise appearance at the ball Saturday night. Standing just yards from Biden and listening closely as he praised Italy and the Italian ambassador, the ball’s hosts, were Kennedy Center chair David Rubenstein, Mars candy heiress Jacqueline Mars, ball chair Connie Milstein, and philanthropist Adrienne Arsht—who combined are worth approximately $20 billion.
Word spread quickly among the 550 guests that the Vice President and his wife were at the Villa Firenze in a holding room meeting privately with ambassador Claudio Bisogniero and his wife, Laura, and would be on the stage at any moment. It was the first time in recent memory that anyone could recall a Vice President attending the annual gala, which costs upward of $1,000 a ticket and raises money for the Washington National Opera. There was no clue in advance, because unlike most appearances by the Vice President—for example, last week at the Kennedy Center for the Vital Voices award ceremony—there were no security checks, no Secret Service agents operating walk-through magnetometers, looking inside handbags or asking for IDs.
Maybe there were special security screening devices in the flower-festooned golf carts that shuttled guests from valet parking on Albermarle Street, four to six to a cart, up and around the long, curving driveway to the impressive Italian residence, which, while bathed in bright colored lights, was still somewhat upstaged by the two luxury Italian roadsters parked out front, a Ferrari and a Maserati. They were there to be admired and to remind us the Italians know how to make hot cars. Indoors, and under a massive marquee out back, the WNO re-created an Italian town square, adorned with lemons—in cachepots large and small and even hanging from the ceiling intertwined with votive candles—plus enough pasta, risotto, cheeses, meats, olives, cakes, cookies, chocolates, and other desserts to easily feed everyone. As with last year, when the ball was at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, Susan Gage provided the catering. There were bars in every direction and a special table dedicated to sampling notable Italian wines, plus a self-serve limoncello bar with three brands of the liqueur available on tap. The evening’s specialty cocktail was a creation of limoncello and Champagne served in a flute.
Due to protocol, because technically we were on Italian soil, the Bisognieros preceded the Bidens onstage. The ambassador praised the Washington National Opera and the numbers of Italian operas that have been performed by the company this season, and noted what a good fit the ball was, since this is the Year of Italian Culture in the United States. In return, Biden had only affection to express toward his hosts and their country, noting that though he is Irish he’s married to the granddaughter of an Italian.
“As most public officials, we tend to aspire to certain offices,” Biden said. “There’s only one office my wife, Jill, aspired me to hold, and that was to be ambassador to Italy, and I am not kidding.” There was laughter. He gave shout-outs to Connie Milstein, David Rubenstein, chief justice John Roberts, and justice Samuel Alito, and then a big verbal hug to the Kennedy Center: “It’s literally difficult to imagine Washington and what it must have been like before there was a Kennedy Center.” Either the VP is fond of opera, or he was just wooing the opera vote. “Opera is an incredible expression of the wide range of human emotions expressed, in my view, with more passion than any other art form that exists,” he said.
Despite appearing onstage, the Bidens did not mingle with the guests or attend one of the earlier private seated dinners at 20 embassies. Jill Biden’s stunning red off-the-shoulder evening gown reminded us that only a few weeks ago she was at the Italian residence making another fashion statement in a backless cocktail dress by Gucci, which hails from Italy.
When the Bidens and Bisognieros left the stage, David Rubenstein tried to get the guests to quiet down and listen as he heaped praise on people who helped make the evening possible, but it was in vain. It was also getting close to 11 PM, and everyone’s attention span was used up. They wanted to dance, and filled the dance floor when the evening’s dance orchestra, Big Ray and the Kool Kats, started to play Sinatra.
It is a long night, especially with the earlier dinners, but it is the dinners that serve as an intimate complement to the grandness of the ball itself. We were guests of the ambassador of Gabon, Michael Moussa-Adamo, and his wife, Bridgette. At the last minute the ambassador was waylaid in Gabon, and Mrs. Moussa-Adamo tapped the ambassadors of Morocco and Niger to sub for her husband.
In her toast, Mrs. Moussa-Adamo was funny and charming. “My husband likes to say that the boss here is me, and I have often wanted to believe that this is true,” she said. “But as you can see, despite my orders for him to be here today, he failed to follow the orders of his boss; he preferred to obey his other boss, president of the republic Ali Bongo Ondimba, to whom, I shall add, I will not fail to complain.”
The dinner party began with Veuve Clicquot Champagne and canapes of spicy tuna tartare, avocado and goat cheese crostini, and grilled baby lamb chops. The meal, served with Cakebread Chardonnay and Saintsbury Pinot Noir, was butter lettuce salad with rhubarb and strawberries, herb-grilled beef tenderloin and halibut with leeks and shiitakes, and a dessert of wine-poached-cherry cheesecake.
What can be fun about a Washington dinner party, and what encourages eternal optimism, is you never know whom you’ll be seated next to. Just when you think you can’t be impressed, there’s something fresh. At my table were Niger ambassador Maman S. Sidikou, who went to law school at the University of Texas; Bruce Bradley, owner of the new Capella Hotel (where many guests ended up after the ball); and Rachel Pearson, one of the evening’s sponsors. On my left at dinner was Meg Thompson, who in the course of our conversation explained she’s a retired CIA operative, formerly posted to the Mideast, and while she liked Zero Dark Thirty it was not an accurate depiction of what it’s like for women “at the agency.” I wondered what kind of second act one can have after that. “I write trashy spy novels,” she said. Nothing same-old same-old about that.