News & Politics

The Opera Party Goes On, Even When the Opera Doesn’t

After mezzo-soprano Susan Graham fell ill, the Kennedy Center canceled her performance, but philanthropist Bonnie McElveen-Hunter went ahead with the fete in her honor.

Eric Motley, Bonnie McElveen-Hunter, and MapHook president and CEO Dr. Paul Carter. Photograph by James R. Brantley.

In show business, the work ethic is simple: The show must go on. But what happens if a solo performer falls ill, and there’s a party planned for her after the show? Businesswoman and philanthropist Bonnie McElveen-Hunter answered that question Saturday as she welcomed guests to her Georgetown home. “On O Street, the show always goes on!” she said.

The party was to be in honor of mezzo-soprano Susan Graham after a midday performance at the Kennedy Center. But the evening before, soon after she arrived in Washington, the singer’s throat began to bother her, and by Saturday morning it was worse. The show was canceled, disappointing a few hundred fans holding tickets. Graham boarded a train home to New York to recuperate.

Her pianist, Malcolm Martineau, who did make it to the McElveen-Hunter party, said the performance would have been the last stop in a month-long tour that took them across the country and up to Canada. “In the evening, Susan felt something wasn’t right,” he said. “We went out in search of a humidifier and found one at CVS. But when she was warming up at rehearsal, it was not good. She’s the last person to cancel. It’s always a tough decision, but for the voice, when it’s not right, it’s not right.”

Even with the cancellation, rain and snow falling from the sky, and every reason to be frazzled, McElveen-Hunter stayed calm. Earlier in the week she returned from Palm Beach, where she helped manage the annual Red Cross Ball (she heads the board of the American Red Cross). The night before the party, she had a similar responsibility at the 25th-anniversary gala of the National Museum of Women in the Arts, on whose board she also serves. What was one more party? Besides, she had help: Susan Gage, her caterer, and Daren Thomas, head of development for the Washington Performing Arts Society—plus lots of Veuve Clicquot and good white wine. Thomas phoned McElveen-Hunter in the early afternoon with news of the concert cancellation and asked if she wanted to cancel the party. “No,” was her emphatic answer.

While not all of the 70 or so people on the guest list made it to the party—some were stranded in the North due to snow—those who did were still rewarded with a memorable performance. When Graham canceled the Kennedy Center performance, Thomas called Samantha McElhaney, also a mezzo-soprano, to ask if she could come to the party to sing. He called at 3 PM; the party was due to start in two hours. Even with the short notice, she accepted the invitation.

We asked her how she got warmed up. “In the car,” she said. To exercise her vocal chords, she sang all the way to Washington from her home in Indian Head, Maryland. In contrast to the cold, wet weather outside, her repertoire focused on warmth. Elegantly dressed in a black silk evening gown, she stood by the grand piano in the living room and sang “Fever” and “Summertime,” among other selections.

Later, Neale Perl, president and CEO of the Washington Performing Arts Society, and a cellist, said it wasn’t the first time an artist had cancelled a WPAS concert and that he was sympathetic to Graham’s plight. “For an instrumentalist, it is different,” he said. “You don’t need your voice. You use the adrenaline to push through the performance.” He called being able to sing a gift, and a fragile one at that. “For a vocalist, if the voice isn’t there, you have no choice but to cancel.” He urged those at the party to “hold on to your tickets. Susan Graham will be back.”