News & Politics

A Night Out: Opera Ball

The Washington National Opera soiree caps the spring social season, and emerges as a contender for party of the year.

Ball Chairman Susan Lehrman and Sam Lehrman. Photo by Russell Hirshon, images courtesy the Washington National Opera.

Friday night’s Opera Ball, which raised about $1.5 million for the Washington National Opera, traditionally marks the end of the spring social season, which goes largely dormant until the fall. It’s a good thing, too: No other event could hope to top the Friday extravaganza, stretching from intimate embassy dinners all around town to a glorious, appropriately operatic entertainment masterpiece that featured midnight performances by the Bolshoi.

The $1,000 tickets granted entry to small dinners at a score of embassies—ranging from Lebanon to Belgium to Colombia to France—preceding the main event: desserts, drinks, and dancing at the Russian Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue, beginning around 9:30. Although in past years the Opera Ball has always been a large and well-appointed affair, the 2010 ball at the Russian Embassy was unlike anything Washington has seen in the better part of a decade. 

Reminiscent of the surreal, opulent parties in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, the event began with a long walk up a wide red carpet stretched across the lawn, with waiters posted every 50 feet with trays of vodka shots, martinis, and cocktails. Photos from Russia and the opera were projected five stories tall on the embassy’s facade of the embassy. Guests were ushered through an entryway transformed into a winter wonderland, with crystals hanging from trees, fake snow spread across the ground, and fog machines lending the whole scene a chilly feeling. Beyond the entrance, huge staircases led past an outdoor courtyard filled with fake falling snow, ballerinas, baton twirlers, and other performers looking ahead to the 2014 Winter Olympics in the Black Sea city of Sochi.

Upstairs, four rooms packed to the high ceilings with decorations kept guests buzzing as they chatted, danced, and drank into the early hours of Saturday.

Heather Podesta. Photo by Russell Hirshon, image courtesy the Washington National Opera.

The blue Ice Palace room featured nine 1,000-pound ice sculptures larger than any of the humans mingling about the center ice bars, where pepper-infused vodka, caviar, and oysters were served. Next door in the main ballroom, Peter Duchin’s orchestra played as costumed dancers twirled in a vision out of the court of Tsar Nicolas II. On the outer rim of the dance floor at low cafe tables, guests enjoyed a seemingly endless supply of cakes decorated to resemble Fabergé eggs by Sylvia Weinstock, one of the world’s leading cake designers.

Faberge egg cakes by Syliva Weinstock. Image courtesy the Washington National Opera.

Overlooking them all were two enormous bouquets of roses, each several feet in diameter. From the main ballroom, guests could pass into the Russian Tea Room, where a noted pianist, Alexander Izbitser, played in the crowded cafe setting while ballgoers enjoyed even more Russian snacks and costumed opera characters moved through the crowd. The final room, decorated to resemble Leo Tolstoy’s library, featured Champagne and cordials along with more dessert. Guests wandered wide-eyed from room to room, soaking in the surreal scenes.
Although the opera wouldn’t release how much the evening cost—most of the expense was borne by Susan Lehrman, the founder and president of real estate investment firm Lehrman LLC who chaired the evening —estimates by guests placed the final price tag close to seven figures. The Lehrmans (Samuel, a graduate of American University, is on the board of Bethesda’s Landon School), the Russian ambassador and his wife, and WNO board president Ken Feinberg spent much of the evening in a receiving line in the main hall outside the ballroom.

Outside the event, in almost ballet-like coordination, a massive valet operation kept track of guests coming and going on Wisconsin Avenue. Only diplomats and government VIPs were allowed to drive onto the compound, but by night’s end the Russian Embassy’s drive was still packed with black SUVs and town cars. The 500-person guest list ranged widely through the Washington establishment, from Cabinet Secretaries (Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano) to members of Congress (Senators Pat Leahy and Bob Bennett) to the ambassador dinner hosts (British ambassador Nigel Sheinwald and French ambassador Pierre Vimont) to Supreme Court justices (including Chief Justice John Roberts) to local celebrities (new WJLA weatherman Bob Ryan) to opera boosters (Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt and WNO general director Plácido Domingo) as well as crowds of local business leaders and lawyers (Ken Feinberg), socialites, nonprofit heads, military leaders, and so on.

The Russian Embassy has never before been on the regular diplomatic or social-party circuit, so for many guests it was their first time inside the large compound atop Mount Alto, one of the highest points in the District. Nearly two years into their time in Washington, Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and his wife launched themselves into the top tier of the city’s hosts. From beginning to end, the dinner and ball embodied an unexpected announcement: The Opera Ball should be considered worthy of the title of the city’s biggest social event of the year.

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