How a Format Change Helped This Gala Double Its Fund-Raising Total

The Washington National Opera's concert lured in some of the biggest stars from opera and Broadway, as well as a whole new audience.

By Adele Chapin June 14, 2017, 7:16 AM EDT

Broadway star Cynthia Erivo performed the finale of "Nessun Dorma,” from Turandot.

Photo: Jati Lindsay

For years, the Washington National Opera embassy-hopped around Washington for its annual Opera Ball. Past parties included an extravagant light show at the French ambassador's residence in 2008 and a replica of the Berlin Wall at the German Embassy in 2009. But this year, a format change for the fund-raiser moved the focus to the Kennedy Center for a performance with opera luminaries and Broadway performers—including a Hamilton star or two.

The goal of the event's transformation from ball to gala, explained Kennedy Center manager of special events Wendy Catbagan, was to put music back at the center of the event and open it up to a wider audience, perhaps even new opera fans. The shift was a success on another front: The event raised $2.3 million for W.N.O. programs (including the 2,000 tickets sold for the performance), an amount that more than doubled the fund-raising totals in the past three years.  

Trading Voices: The W.N.O. Opera Gala Concert—held on June 3 in the Kennedy Center's 2,000-seat Opera House—showcased opera stars singing show tunes and Broadway stars taking on arias, with mezzo-soprano Denyce Graves singing Show Boat's “Old Man River” and Cynthia Erivo performing the finale of “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot. The 90-minute show also included performances from Hamilton’s original Aaron Burr, Tony Award-winner Leslie Odom Jr., as well as Jordan Donica, star of the show's current U.S. tour.

Before the entertainment, 400 W.N.O. donors gathered outside on the Kennedy Center Terrace for a cocktail hour. Catbagan worked with DC Rental to bring in a massive gilded bar that echoed the Kennedy Center's gold columns, with tables topped with floral arrangements from Urban Petals. Catbagan said the cocktail hour's garden-party vibe was inspired by the elegant style of W.N.O. Board chairman Jacqueline Badger Mars, honored at the gala as she stepped down after six years of leadership. That wasn't the only nod to Mars, heiress of the Mars candy company: Everyone received a commemorative W.N.O. package of M&Ms as they left the Opera House and donors made their way to dinner at embassies across D.C. to end the night.

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