- The Washington Times - Monday, June 9, 2003

In the good old days, grand balls were all about ruffles and flourishes, great music, decor and making a proper entrance. Bejeweled beauties vied for attention as they waltzed to Strauss in fabulous ball gowns — dresses that bounced and flowed and set the eyes as well as the heart dancing.

Nowadays, especially in this town, more attention is apt to be devoted to the politics of the day.

That certainly was true at the Washington Opera Ball, which took place Friday at the residence of French Ambassador Jean-David Levitte. Recent foreign policy disputes between the erstwhile allies over the U.S. invasion of Iraq made the event a “hot ticket” indeed, though not in the usual sense of the term.

Fears of a boycott because of anti-French sentiment had withered by the time some 550 guests arrived for 10 p.m. dancing and desserts after dinners at 25 other embassies. After all, who could fail to be charmed by a setting that featured 4,500 votive candles sparkling on the lawn, a magnificent flower-filled and Doric be-columned party pavilion, lively dance music and oceans of champagne, plus costumed actors performing tableaux vivants straight out of Louis XVI’s court at Versailles?

Such amenities buried any possibility of anti-French sentiment, at least for the night, and softened the absence of the opera’s artistic director, Placido Domingo, who, according to weekend reports, has been the secret source of several million dollars in benefit funds originally pledged to the company by his friend hard-up New York philanthropist Alberto Vilar.

The French clearly seized the opportunity to go overboard in pursuit of better bilateral relations. A special sense of drama was palpable midway through the festivities when Mr. Levitte paid tribute to the American soldiers who gave their lives “to save the French people and all European people” on what turned out to be the 59th anniversary of D-Day. “We will never forget,” he told the applauding crowd, many of whom were visibly touched by the diplomatic beau geste.

Most high-ranking patriots in attendance played down any hints of enmity for the occasion.

Sen. Thad Cochran brushed off inquiries about the appropriateness of his presence under such circumstances. “I have a dispensation from my leader,” the Mississippi Republican said with a chuckle before heading off to the dance floor.

Others took a more guarded approach. Sen. Richard Shelby, for example, was there “out of courtesy but without a lot of exuberance” because of recent events. “I hope someday [the French] will come around and be the friends they were,” he declared.

Other guests averred that their profound love of music influenced their decision to participate. “I was mad at them, and I debated it,” real estate investor Mel Estrin confessed, “but the Washington Opera is dear to my heart.”

Opera Ball Chairman Betty Scripps Harvey admitted that the $1,500-per-person ball tickets had not been selling as well as usual because of the French link. All that changed, she noted, especially after the committee shored up support and Mr. Levitte secured the patronage of Airbus, L’Oreal, Credit Lyonnais, Hermes, LVMH Moet Hennessy, Louis Vuitton and other French companies doing business in the United States.

The “climactic” photo-op handshake between President Bush and French President Jacques Chirac at the G-8 Conference also helped “turn around” the ticket situation, Mrs. Scripps Harvey noted. “After that, quite a few came in.”

As Mrs. Scripps Harvey pointed out, the French “bent over backward” to create an “absolutely outstanding” affair, brightened especially by the presence of a troupe of actors normally resident at the Chateau of Versailles. How amusing to see the powdered vicomte seduce the swooning marquise on a settee in the foyer or watch Marie Antoinette playing dominoes with catty courtiers in a side salon as flute and harpsichord fugues floated through the perfumed air. Activities continued in the garden as well, where dueling cavaliers crossed swords over a pretty but oblivious mademoiselle flying above them on a flower-garlanded swing.

American actors from Washington, Williamsburg and Philadelphia portrayed the likes of Robert Livingston, who was only too glad to tell how he bargained the price of the Louisiana Purchase down from $22 million to $15 million (about 3 cents an acre) 200 years ago. A red-haired Thomas Jefferson strolled among partygoers, as did Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin, all key players in historical events of the past cementing bonds of friendship, or at least expanding commercial ties between the two nations.

As far as the ladies’ gowns went, few wore the traditional billowing mode. Sexy, high-stepping shoes and cocktail dresses were more prominent. Marie-Cecile Levitte was conservatively clad in a long-sleeve gray-beige tiered satin Jean-Louis Sherrer. Mrs. Scripps Harvey stood out in a pink Arnold Scaasi ruffled creation that superbly complemented her important diamond-and-ruby necklace by Van Cleef & Arpels.

In the end, it was the proverbial bottom line that told the ball’s tale better than anything else: a record $3.15 million for the opera’s coffers (with Mrs. Scripps Harvey and AOL co-founder James V. Kimsey contributing the lion’s share of $1 million apiece).

Even better news was the announcement that Mrs. Scripps Harvey will take the reins again next year.

As trustee Antonia Gore put it, “We hope she’s chairman for life.”

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