- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 11, 2006

Friday’s major fundraising fete of the Washington National Opera was billed “A Venetian Ball at Villa Firenze,” but there were no masks. Rumored reason: publishing benefactress Betty Knight Scripps, now in her seventh year as ball chairman, doesn’t like them.

Better, for sure, to see and be seen amid the lavish surroundings in the Tudor mansion that is home to Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta and his wife Lila who hosted the dessert-and-dancing phase of the evening that followed dinner for patrons sponsored by 26 embassies around town.

At Villa Firenze the theme on the dance floor was carried out with mirrored mobiles sparkling in the amber light amid swags of soft blue fabric hung between eight ceiling-high columns. The scene everywhere was something of a stage set, complete with liveried servants dressed in ivory brocade and powdered wigs greeting guests at the entrance.

Inside, costumed supernumeraries from the company’s past productions stood in attendance. Festooned greenery and sweet-smelling spring flowers — peonies, hydrangea, roses — were everywhere abloom among lavish dessert tables groaning with every imaginable sort of Italian sweets: tiramisu, canoli, gelati, fresh figs and aged hunks of Parmesan cheese. The dining room honored Venice’s famed seafood dishes prepared in chocolate.

More than 500 patrons contributed $2.5 million for the event that annually subsidizes the opera company’s many activities and productions. Supreme Court Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg; Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta; and Sens. Robert F. Bennett, Thad Cochran, Richard C. Shelby and George V. Voinovich were spotted, all in black-tie finery, along with such top benefactors as Vicki Sant, Arturo and Hilda Brillembourg, Giuseppe and Mercedes Cecchi, Dan and Tanya Snyder, Mel and Suellen Estrin, Lucky Roosevelt, Evelyn Nef, and Stuart and Wilma Bernstein.

“Tonight we pay tribute to bonds of cultural friendship,” said Mrs. Scripps, honoring the longstanding friendship between the United States and Italy in short remarks offered midway through non-stop dance tunes by Bob Hardwick’s orchestra. Earlier, at Kuwaiti Ambassador Salem Al-Sabah and wife Rima’s dinner for two dozen guests at the Georgetown Club, attended by Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Undersecretary of State Paula Dobriansky and Justice Antonin Scalia, among others, Mr. Al-Sabah, known in private as a lover of hard rock, praised the Washington National Opera, saying how it one day might supercede New York’s Metropolitan.

“Not enough money here,” Mr. Scalia disagreed sotta voce at his end of the table. And when asked if he might sing by chance sometime during the night, the justice — never one to mince words — responded with a definite non-operatic retort: “Get outta here.”

Pause

“That’s a New York expression,” the Queens, N.Y., native explained to his puzzled listeners.

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