News & Politics

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.

Upon departure from the ball, guests help themselves to a buffet of malted milk balls and other candies. Photograph by Jeff Martin.

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

Conversation, as it often does in Washington, centered
on politics, work, the weather, and, in this instance, opera.
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
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.