While it’s no longer a hard rule, by the standards of yore the Washington social season wraps up this weekend with what some regulars like to call the party of the year, the annual ball to benefit the Washington National Opera. It’s considered the last opportunity for the city’s establishment to get dolled up, pull out the good jewelry, and admire one another before the beginning of the summer social season, which is more casual and often happening elsewhere: the Eastern Shore, Rehoboth, the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket. There’s also an annual gala at Ford’s Theatre.
The way the Opera Ball works makes for an elegant and festive evening. It’s expected to attract 400 guests, who pay $1,200 for each ticket and up to $100,000 for the “diamond” level, which includes 20 tickets. Guests first attend a private dinner at one of 16 embassies or Evermay Estate. From there they go to the ball, which this year is at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates and hosted by Ambassador Yousef al Otaiba and his wife, Abeer. The theme will be the traditional pleasures of the UAE, including desserts, music, and dancing. When I asked if there would be belly dancing, the spokesman said, “Well, they don’t call it that.”
In recent years the ball has been held at the embassies of China, Germany, and France. It’s an opportunity for the host ambassador to pull out all the stops for the delight of a guest list that typically includes Supreme Court justices, high-echelon government officials, members of the Senate and House, corporate bigwigs, and a number of people who are just plain rich. Money is the point of the evening. The ball typically raises more than $1 million for the opera’s artistic, education, and outreach programs.
This year’s chair, her first time in the role, is Adrienne Arsht, who can best be described as a philanthropist on fire. She’ll be the woman in the black Oscar de la Renta ballgown—“white with slashes of black. It is strapless and fitted to below the knee and then flares out!” she wrote in an e-mail. While she came from a well-off family in Delaware, Arsht has, as a lawyer and banker, created a personal fortune, which she shares with the arts community in particular. She gave $30 million to the Miami Performing Arts Center. She is treasurer of the board of the Kennedy Center, home to the opera, and has given $5 million alone for an Adrienne Arsht Musical Theater Fund at the center, and another $125,000 to its Arts in Crisis program. Her late husband, Mike Feldman, was a close adviser to both Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Also playing a central role in the event is Carlyle Group cofounder David Rubenstein and his wife, Alice. They are major underwriters of the Washington National Opera, and he is chairman of the Kennedy Center’s board.
Some of the embassies hosting dinners include Finland, Great Britain, Ireland, India, Oman, Singapore, Spain, Brazil, Uzbekistan, Hungary, and Japan. The Al Otaibas are promising quite an extravaganza, including the creation in the embassy of a virtual desert oasis with a water wall, palm trees, and hanging orchids, with tents nearby offering Emirati desserts. Henna artists will be on hand, too. Let’s hope some Arab tats are applied to a Supreme Court justice or two.
The party goes late, and a lot of the same people will be out again Sunday night for the annual Ford’s Theatre Gala, which this year features performances by Bettye LaVette and Matthew Morrison, among others, in honor of Morgan Freeman and Elie Weisel, who will receive Lincoln Medals. The President and First Lady usually attend; Michelle Obama is the honorary chair. Following the performances at the historic theater, the guests, who paid $1,500 and up for tickets, walk over to the National Portrait Gallery for a seated dinner, which this year features Tuscan grilled beef, hickory-barbecued salmon, lemon-paprika chicken, cucumber-watermelon salad, and spring pea risotto.
In all, a gala weekend in Washington. Now you’ll know the reason if the city’s rich and famous are sleepy-eyed on Monday—not to mention the parents who will be shuttling their teens to area proms, and then waiting up till God knows when for them to be safely home.