- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

THE EVENT: The Washington Opera Women’s Committee’s “Carnaval! A Rio Revelry” Saturday night at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.

THE AIM: Introducing opera to the under-40 crowd with a fun evening of costumes, masks, tapas and samba.

THE BOTTOM LINE: $150 apiece for “young revelers only” (no precise age specified); a minimum $500 and up for more seasoned supporters helping to raise $250,000 for the cause.

THE SCENE: Guests sipped cocktails and checked out silent auction items as they eyeballed each other’s masks and costumes in between air-kisses and hugs in the spectacularly lighted auditorium, decorated “Carnaval style” for the occasion with faux pastel-colored columns topped by towering feather arrangements. Then came dinner: a seated affair involving four appetizer-sized tapas courses, three live-auction- and speech-filled intermezzos that could barely be heard due to chatter and inadequate amplification, and a brief but accomplished performance by a tenor, soprano and pianist from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists Program.

COSTUMED GLORY: Fashion-minded ladies, many from the Women’s Committee, went all out in masquerade finery. Among the best were the red chiffon Yves Saint-Laurent gown with fishtail back worn by Aniko Gaal Schott; Cindy Jones’ lavender Versace with draped skirt and low-cut fitted bodice (worn with the designer’s “silver bondage shoes”); and, of course, the extraordinary ensemble worn by the party’s honorary co-chairman, Maria-Ignez Barbosa. The Brazilian ambassador’s wife was an apparition in black, a ghostly queen in mourning, as she floated past in a flowing skirt, lace top and extravagant cape and veil, her hair covered by a mask affixed with a magnificent brooch of old mine diamonds.

Honorable mention as well to Nina Pillsbury, whose Carmen Miranda-style headgear included grapes, apples and a very interesting banana….

TAKING NO CHANCES: As expected, the average male was a dud in the duds department. Most dressed about the same as they would for a major-party fund-raiser in a downtown hotel.

“I only found out it was a Mardi Gras event when I got in the car,” venture capitalist Evan Jonespleaded after being queried about his unaltered state. Lobbyist Jeffrey Weiss’ wife, Juleanna Glover-Weiss, got the blame for not telling him in time. Others offered the “I just got off a plane” excuse.

Among the exceptions were Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, whose small black eyemask with snazzy green sparkles made a brief appearance before disappearing into his jacket pocket. Philip Pillsbury got major marks (and a few nervous snickers) when he appeared in a blue floor-length “grand bazzin,” or caftan, recently purchased in Mali.

Mr. Pillsbury did not hesitate to wear a costume at a large public gathering, but he could sympathize with less secure types who might.

“In Washington, men feel as if they have to blend in,” the retired foreign service officer and baking products heir said with a smile, “If you are a congressman from Kansas, you are not about to turn up in a feather boa.”

TARGET AUDIENCE: Younger guests ended up filling about half of the 550 seats, which pleased opera trustees seeking to lower the company’s elderly demographic.

“The average age of operagoers is ‘deceased,’” Washington Opera trustee James V. Kimseysaid, making no secret of his wish to demystify what is often perceived as a stodgy and impenetrable art form as far as Generations X, Y and Z are concerned.

“We have to educate the young,” Mr. Kimsey said, “and let them know the performances have surtitles and that the music is truly wonderful.”

“We have to identify them first,” opera Chairman Michael Sonnenreich added, “and we’ve started to do that tonight.”

NOT-SO-GRAND FINALE: Unfortunately, many younger patrons didn’t hang around for dancing and desserts after the last tapas plates were cleared.

“Let’s get some pizza,” one twenty something was heard proposing to his still apparently hungry tablemates as others bolted to Pannier, Cafe Milano and other late-night hot spots for supplemental chow.

After Tropic of Capricorn’s 20-minute samba set, there was little inducement to remain for dancing, either. After all, the MTV generation was unborn or hardly out of its collective diapers when the band’s remaining selections, mostly ‘70s hits like “Shake Your Booty”and “I Will Survive,” topped the charts.

“It was a bit lame,” one Women’s Committee stalwart admitted at evening’s end. “We needed to get everybody charged up with samba music right from the start and not let the seated dinner drag on so long.

“It was a first-time event and a good learning experience. It will be a lot better next year.”

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