Monday, September 8, 2003

What Washington host wouldn’t like having three Supreme Court justices, several ambassadors, two American Ballet Theatre stars and Placido Domingo at a party?

Such was the scene at the Washington Opera’s slam-bang season opener when Prince Orlovsky, a character in Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus,” throws a Viennese ball at DAR Constitution Hall and — surprise — who should turn up onstage but a number of celebrity guests from the audience — all performing in a manner of speaking.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg (holding a colorful fan), Anthony Kennedy (“I’m a little nervous.”) and Stephen Breyer, all judicially berobed, were introduced as “guests supreme from the court supreme.” Russian Ambassador Yuri Ushakov and Hungarian Ambassador Andras Simonyi and their wives obliged as well, with Svetlana Ushakova bedecked appropriately in satin and sable.

Justice Ginsburg played along by bowing in a fashion to Mr. Ushakov — hardly her routine role. Justice Breyer was jovial when telling later how at age 12 he was a supernumerary in “Boris Godounov.” “This time,” he said, “I got a much better view.”

A pity the company couldn’t lure newly arrived British Ambassador Sir David Manning and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz to join in the antics. The two men had a tete-a-tete during a crowded intermission party-within-a-party that could have been one of the few serious moments in a fun and fantasy-filled night. Mr. Wolfowitz did agree in a private moment, however, that about the only lesson to be learned from the Strauss opera was that “life’s a farce.”

The performance and dinner dance later in the OAS building (450 guests paid a minimum $700 to attend) lasted from 6:30 p.m. until after two in the morning. So much for Washington’s reputation as a sleepy go-to-bed-early town. Except that it was Saturday, of course, and the hijinks onstage weren’t all frothy sendups in spite of a traditional volley of politically spiced insider jokes introduced into the script.

Mr. Domingo, the Washington Opera’s artistic director, sang mightily in several numbers that roused the audience to major applause. Who wouldn’t swoon to hear the maestro perform a Spanish zarzuela that he grew up singing in Mexico plus the famous Franz Lehar German aria “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” (“Yours is my heart alone”).

Librarian of Congress James Billington confessed the latter was his favorite song and that he can sing it in seven languages and does so often in the shower. Feeling expansive, too, Mr. Domingo couldn’t resist joking at the dinner that the company had considered getting the Austrian-born California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger as a special guest. A pity he wasn’t available.

There were so many social and diplomatic notables at the white-tie-optional affair that the occasion might have substituted for a mini-United Nations. First lady of Austria Klestil Loeffler was ebullient as she circulated in the crowd after a long day that included a flight from Vienna and a hasty tea with first lady Laura Bush at the White House. “The cast did very well, They played for laughs,” she said of the performance, which — to her surprise — was in English instead of the usual German.

Ambassadors from Austria, Brazil, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Kuwait, Lichtenstein, the Netherlands, Sweden and Uzbekistan were sighted in their colorful orders, medals and sashes. Opera President Michael Sonnenreich noted that Argentine Ambassador Jose Octavio Bordon was sufficiently enthused to offer to “get on stage and dance a tango for the rest of the performances.”

Doyenne Betty Casey, the opera’s life chairman, underwrote the production as well as the dinner, but kept her presence typically low profile throughout the night. Mayor Anthony Williams (who may one day reside in a new official residence built at Mrs. Casey’s expense) was also sighted along with Sen. Ted Stevens, opera benefactors Betty Scripps-Harvey and James V. Kimsey, Selwa W. Roosevelt, John and JoAnn Mason, G. William Miller, Calvin and Jane Cafritz, Ina Ginsburg, Otto and Jeanette Ruesch, Albert and Shirley Small, Giant Foods heirs Samuel and Robert Lehrman, Mandell and Mary Ourisman and Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn.

Supper (crab imperial, petit rack of Veal “Viennese” and apple strudel) wasn’t served until midnight and there were plenty of lengthy speeches before the waltzing, fox trotting and rhumba-ing finally got under way. Following Viennese tradition, dance cards were thoughtfully provided at each table. The only complaint of the night: not enough champagne — especially after the bubbly stuff was so effectively touted as “the essence of the essence” in the famous Fledermaus drinking song.

But no matter. If this is how the company can celebrate an opening night in DAR’s less-than-perfect Constitution Hall, just think of the fuss when they move back into their home ground next year following renovations at the Kennedy Center.

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