- The Washington Times - Monday, February 28, 2005

THE EVENT: The Women’s Committee of the Washington National Opera’s Midwinter Gala in the Imperial City of Fez.

TAKE ME TO THE CASBAH: Wailing singers, throbbing drums and the sound of musicians on traditional Berber instruments echoed throughout the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium Saturday night as guests arrived for the much-awaited Moroccan-themed event. Few could resist exclaiming in wonderment at the mini palm trees, pastel-hued tents, Moorish lamps and tables set with multicolored roses that transformed the Great Hall into a pasha’s paradise — or, mere steps away in an adjacent “souk,” gawking at the blackamoor mannequin presiding over silent-auction offerings as shrouded servers offered tea and grand viziers in Ali Baba-esque turbans bore bowls filled not with myrrh, but door-prize chances.

“It’s a touch of Morocco in Washington,” said Moroccan Ambassador Aziz Mekouar, who went on to describe additional touches, which included a folk-costumed bride being “turned” (“bounced” would be a more accurate description) in her canopied sedan chair, not to mention his own white djellaba (robe) and striking selhan (hooded cape).

DEFINITELY NOT MOROCCAN: Male guests were encouraged to buy and wear a red hat traditionally known as a fez. The only problem: In Morocco, it is called a tarboosh. (Turks call it a fez.)

Belly-dancing turned out to be a major no-no, and organizers had to call off a performance by a local practitioner after objections were made.

“It’s Egyptian” in origin, Mr. Mekouar patiently explained. “We do have it in Morocco, but it’s only for tourists.”

A FEAST TO REMEMBER: Mr. Mekouar and his wife, Maria Felice Cittadini Cesi, dispatched their own kitchen staff to supervise Occasions caterers’ preparation of an authentic Moroccan feast typical of the ancient capital city of Fez. After a sugar-coated pastilla and selection of salads were served at table, the 450 guests were bid to the buffet for Cornish hen with red olives, tagine of lamb (served with almonds and seckel pears), rockfish with peppers and shrimp, and several varieties of couscous.

Earlier, Mrs. Cittadini Cesi, Italian born but claiming 20 years of experience with the food of her husband’s homeland, quoted renowned chef Paul Bocuse on the subject of Moroccan cuisine.

“He said it was one of the three best in the world, along with the French and the Chinese,” she noted as Prince Idris al-Senussi, the great-nephew of King Idris, the last king of Libya, nodded in agreement.

“She makes her couscous for me every week,” the prince said with a satisfied smile. “It has a great restorative effect.”

THE CAUSE: Although the evening’s quite respectable $250,000 proceeds benefited the Opera’s education programs, organizers took pains to note that, for once, the enticement of younger supporters was more important than the bottom line.

“We do everything we can to attract them,” said Opera President Michael Sonnenreich, mentioning special social events and “look-ins” on dress rehearsals among other inducements for the younger set. “If they don’t participate,” he noted, “we can’t sustain ourselves.”

“The point is to get them here and expose them to the opera,” said Collette Bruce, who co-chaired the event with Antonia Gore. “We hope they’ll make the leap, attend an opera, become subscribers and then loyal supporters for years and years.”

WHO WAS THERE: The crowd was equally divided between the under-40 set, who paid a bargain price of $150 each, and the “old-timers,” as Evelyn DiBona put it, who paid $500 — although $50,000 from Time Warner (matched by Opera superbenefactor Betty Casey) helped underwrite the affair.

Among the old and would-be opera aficionados sighted on the dance floor, where many ladies showed off wonderfully embroidered caftans to their maximum advantage, were (with absolutely no regard to age): former Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Sen. Evan Bayh, Rep. Michael Oxley, Philip and Nina Pillsbury, Bill and Lynda Webster, Jeffrey and Juleanna Weiss, Campion and Tatiana Platt, Nini Ferguson, Joe Martyak, Payson and Karin Peabody, Aniko Gaal Schott, Evelyn Nef, Jamie and Lisa Sterling, Pat Sagon, Steven and Katrina Gewirz and the ambassadors of Japan, Brazil, Bolivia, Spain, Malta, Belgium and Finland.

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