From Switzerland to Abu Dhabi in One Sweet Night (Photos)

The extravagant ball to benefit the Washington National Opera began, for our writer, at the Swiss Embassy and ended with a sweet oasis.

By: Carol Ross Joynt

In the end, the annual Washington Opera Ball was all about a good sugar high. Sweet was the prevailing theme Saturday night at the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates, where guests arrived to candlelight, incense, and the lilt of the lute-like oud instrument. Women cloaked in traditional abaya presented trays of dates, and men in long, white kanduras offered sparkling wine. But most of all, this night in a virtual desert oasis was about the desserts, which ranged from Middle Eastern favorites—gemat and kamfaroush—to an all-American buffet of multicolored malted milk balls, Junior Mints, and mini Milky Way and Butterfinger bars.

It turns out ball chairwoman Adrienne Arsht has quite a sweet tooth, so in addition to the array of desserts that are traditional at the ball, there were self-serve ice cream machines (including one from her own home) serving up both the fully loaded and the nonfat varieties, plus chocolate boxes filled with chocolates. It was also her idea to offer guests the candy “bar” and little bags to fill up on their way out the door. On that basis alone I think she should be named permanent chair of all Washington galas.

While the evening ended in the aura of Abu Dhabi, it began for most of the 500 guests with small, seated dinners at 16 embassies and Evermay Estate. I was a guest of Swiss Ambassador Manuel Sager and his wife, Christine, at their striking contemporary residence on Cathedral Avenue. Among the 17 other people at the dinner were Supreme Court Chief Justice John G. Roberts and his wife, Jane; Kennedy Center board chairman David Rubenstein and his wife, Alice; the Rubensteins’ good friends, Bob Kur and Cathy Porter; as well as private wealth manager Guillermo Schultz and Cecilia Schultz and the Washington Opera’s wardrobe supervisor, Martha Timlin, with her niece, Olivia.

The Sagers were grateful the monsoon had happened the night before. Saturday’s beautiful weather allowed them to greet their guests on the residence’s large terrace, which overlooked a sloping green lawn, the swimming pool, and Christine Sager’s vegetable garden.

Conversation, as it often does in Washington, centered on politics, work, the weather, and, in this instance, opera. Especially interesting was Alice Rubenstein. Her husband casts a big shadow as the billionaire cofounder of the Carlyle Group and president of the Economic Club of Washington. She’s less well known, but she’s an interesting woman all on her own, especially when talking about her deep affection for and commitment to Alaska. She is the founder of the Alaska Native Arts Foundation, keeps a home in Anchorage, and pilots her own seaplane, which, she boasts, has both wheels and pontoons. She’s traversed just about every mile of the state, except for the Aleutian Islands, but they are on her list.

Was everybody an opera buff? Well, not exactly. At dinner Ambassador Sager gave an amusing toast in which he confessed, “I have not yet been touched by opera. I went to the opera eight years ago and slept through the performance.” But he said he was “humbled” to host the dinner on behalf of the WNO “because we all like to be part of something that transcends our day jobs.” He was opinionated about Washington and veered close to the presidential race. “Washington is a fairly homogenous town,” he said. “Everybody has an opinion on everything, and everybody knows what is best for the country.” He mentioned the city’s “obsession with differences,” adding, “including people’s travel arrangements with their dogs.”

Lastly, he said his wife asked him to “say something funny about the beans” that were picked earlier in the day from her vegetable garden and served with the rare veal tenderloin. For the beans, alas, Sager had no jokes.

When David Rubenstein made his toast he thanked Sager, pointed out that both had gone to Duke, that they were both lawyers, “but not as good as the chief justice.” Guest Alan Rachlin, a lawyer, piped up: “Who is?”

Rubenstein also made reference to the opera’s recent financial troubles, which may have been solved by having the company absorbed by the Kennedy Center (as well as significant underwriting by Rubenstein). He said, “The Washington National Opera struggled a little, but now it has come together at the Kennedy Center, and we are celebrating our one-year anniversary.”

Rubenstein presented the Sagers with a Tiffany bowl and then suggested it was time for everyone to push back their chairs and head over to the UAE for the ball. While it was a regional transition, the Swiss residence and the home of UAE Ambassador Yousef Al Otaiba share a modern design and a feeling of white on white on white. But at the UAE party there were tents and veils, a water wall, palm trees, and a hooka lounge where Emirati men sat on Oriental rugs and leaned against low stools and benches. Some of the Emirati women wore metal burqa over their faces, which looked like face guards, but are a revered, traditional piece of dress, and their abayas were adorned with jewels. It was quite an arresting look. Later a swing band would play standards, but before that a troop of Emirati men, lit only by blue lights as if under a moonlit sky, danced together to the sound of tribal drums.

Many of the female guests were drawn to the two tents where henna artists were available to apply temporary tattoos. Chief of protocol Capricia Marshall, in a petal-pink strapless chiffon dress, debated whether to have a design applied to her bare shoulders or her hands, and in the end went with the hands. But she’s no tattoo novice. “I’ve been hennaed several times,” she said—including, one time in Jordan, where she had a chain hennaed around her waist.