WASHINGTON, D.C. Running since 1974, the Opera Ball is one of Washington’s glitziest events of the year, where guests head to private, intimate dinners at embassies around town, and then convene for dessert and dancing at the chancery or embassy of the year’s official host. While the emphasis currently lies firmly in the after-party portion of the evening, it wasn’t always that way. Prior to 1998, when newspaper heiress Betty Knight Scripps Harvey took over as chairwoman, the first half of the evening was more popular and had eclipsed the dance portion. “No matter what city you are from, it is hard to top being a guest at a formal dinner with a foreign ambassador around his dining room table,” said Washington National Opera director of special events Patti Humphrey, who has overseen the event since 1985.
Knight Scripps Harvey, however, aimed to make more of a statement with the second half of the evening. “Betty really liked to dance and wanted to bring the production values of the opera stage to the event,” Humphrey said, adding that now-deceased New York planner Philip Baloun designed the event from 2001 to 2007, and Sandi R. Hoffman has produced since 2009. “The ball had been going for three decades, and it was time for a much needed shot in the arm. I believe it set the stage for the opera to attract the high-dollar sponsors, which is where the real net profit comes into play.”
In the past 10 years, the ball headed to nine embassies and chanceries, with ambassador hosts from Sweden, Belgium, France (twice), United Kingdom, Brazil, Italy, Peru, Germany, Russia, and most recently, China. Each year the decor, catering, and entertainment take their cues from the host country, evident in the pisco sour cocktails and 50-foot photographic murals of Lima’s main square at 2007’s ball at the 25-acre estate of the Peruvian ambassador, and the 34-foot-long replica of the Berlin Wall and the smoked trout and mackerel offerings courtesy of Occasions Caterers at 2009’s ball at the German ambassador’s home. Opera talent, too, is a focal point, with company stars and costumed performers floating around the parties.
The boost in production has clearly paid off in terms of fund-raising, as the company has tripled its earnings in a decade, raising $887,500 in 2001 and $2.6 million in 2011. Humphrey has found ways to shave expenses to boost the net profit, like using fewer flowers in 2009 and, in recent years, choosing larger, air-conditioned venues and forgoing expensive tents.
A major lesson learned came when Knight Scripps Harvey backed out of her chairwoman duties in 2008, leaving Humphrey and her staff to find other financial backing. “We learned quite a bit from that experience,” said Humphrey. “The company started treating this sponsorship in a more businesslike manner, with a written agreement signed by the chairman.” New chair Susan Lehrman took over in 2008, and focused on using the event to increase public awareness of the arts, while building cultural ties with the hosts.