- The Washington Times - Monday, February 11, 2008

On the Saturday before Valentine’s Day, the romantic setting of the “Taj Mahal by Moonlight” was an inspired choice for the Women’s Committee of the Washington National Opera’s sold-out Mid-Winter Gala at the Andrew W. Mellon Auditorium.

Soon-to-depart Indian Ambassador Ronen Sen (whose popular wife, Kalpana, was in India attending to her ill mother), gala chairwoman Caroline Boutte and vice chairwoman Kim Nettles welcomed 500 opera patrons, many of whom abandoned their usual black-tie garb for flowing silks and mirror applique, embroidered tunics and turbans.

Guests were surrounded by the rich and colorful sights and sounds of India from the moment of arrival: a labyrinth of billowing silk tenting, sitar players, women with bindi decorations on their foreheads, and colorful silent auction items (including Aspen jeweler extraordinaire Ross Andrew’s “Arabesque Carpet Diamond Bracelet” valued at $76,755). Prabha Bhambri’s delicate tissue silk umbrellas and Indian goddess of love centerpieces topped mirrored table coverings amid princely golden canopies to embellish a scene that many Indian and Pakistani patrons agreed had the authentic air of an Indian wedding.

Waiters passed trays of Mango Cosmopolitans and Bombay Breezes to help wash down the delicate but spicy Indian savories circulated during the reception. Later, the Occasions-catered four-course dinner featured lamb and chicken curries with Indian pickles, relishes and chutneys and a coconut cake and white chocolate dessert in the shape of the Taj Mahal.

Although the opera’s eternal star and beloved artistic director Placido Domingo was absent, performing elsewhere, the evening was “a coming out party” for the opera’s brand new executive director, Mark Weinstein

“This is better than my bar mitzvah,” he exclaimed.

With a huge Taj Mahal as his backdrop, Mr. Sen told the exuberant crowd that his own favorite description of “this exquisite gem of architecture, one of the wonders of the world,” is that of Indian Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore, who called it, “a teardrop in the cheek of time.” He then reminded the gentlemen that “Valentine’s Day is coming up and after tonight, you can’t get along with just chocolates and champagne. The least you can do is plan a visit to the Taj Mahal together.”

Conveniently, that was the live auction item: a first-class trip for two on Air India with a moonlight visit to Agra (valued at $29,500), which went for $16,000. “Bad stock market” several patrons mumbled.

Most of all, the evening provided an opportunity for guests to dress up and pretend they weren’t in gray, dreary Washington in mid-February. Cathi Little wore an original Indian bridal headdress. Nina Pillsbury chose an antique red and gold brocade tunic she found at the Lake Palace Hotel in Udiapur. Dianne Bruce danced barefooted in a precious Punjabi tunic purchased in London’s Beauchamp Place while Grace Bender wrapped herself in a green and red sari originally worn in the movie “Passage to India” (she bought it at an AFI benefit). Kim Nettles changed mid-gala because she couldn’t decide which outfit of Shaista Mahmood’s to wear. Sue and Timothy Albrecht, among others, borrowed garments from Nicky Singh.

Tops in the men’s competition was Joe Martyak in a custom-made turban, Indian wedding “sherwani,” silk harem pants and curled-toed evening slippers. “I told several of these guys in ‘monkey suits’ that while they’re all buttoned-up, I’m so comfortable in my pj pants and slippers.”

Mrs. Boutte, regal in a gossamer gold sari, declared the event the success she’d only dreamed of earlier this year while sipping champagne in the Taj Mahal’s moonlit garden. “Our goals were to transport you to the most romantic spot in the world … and to underwrite an opera and we did both,” she declared as she announced the Women’s Committee’s winning fund-raising team (the “Flutes”).

“I expected a gorgeous, spectacular event,” said her handsome actor son, Banks, who accompanied her on the trip, “but this was magnificent.”

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