News & Politics

Two Glamorous Events Wrap Up DC’s Spring Social Season

This weekend’s Opera Ball and Ford’s Theater Gala signal the end of the spring social season and the start of summer.

Adrienne Arsht, the chair of this year’s opera ball, dressed up for an earlier gala. Photograph by Daniel Schwartz.

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
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,
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.