Opera Ball Gives Guests a Taste (and a Smoke) of Arab Hospitality

By Beth Kormanik June 6, 2012, 2:55 PM EDT

Specialty tenting outside the ballroom offered activities and desserts to the ball's 500 guests.

Photo: Daniel Schwartz

Washington National Opera's 2012 Opera Ball
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Once the Washington National Opera's annual ball had found a home—the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates—the concept for the evening became clear. The U.A.E. would be the first Arab embassy to host the ball, so planners focused on the idea of “Arab hospitality.”

“In the nomadic culture there was always an annual gathering where everyone came together in a big tent,” said Leslie Miller, director of special events at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, which organized the ball. “There was always a lot to eat and wonderful things to refresh themselves with. Maybe you don't see each other all year, but you see each other once a year. On a certain level, it made sense for this event as well.”

About 500 guests enjoyed that hospitality at Saturday's gathering, which raised more than $1.1 million. After guests had dinner at 16 other embassies and a private residence, they gathered at 9:30 p.m. for the ball. After walking through a series of Arab pergolas, they entered the embassy's grand portico, which featured a 23-foot starburst lantern lit by candles that the Kennedy Center built for the event. Inside was a 20-foot water wall and an atrium with palm trees and hanging orchids. A series of tents outside offered traditional Emirati desserts such as kamfaroush and gemat, henna ink artists, and shisha water pipes for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco.

“There were different places for people to go, and you could move throughout the space,” Miller said.

Hosts Ambassador Al Otaiba and his wife, Abeer, provided guidance on decor and entertainment so the ball would accurately depict Emirati culture and avoid stereotypes or an American version of it.

“We were very lucky to have their involvement, so we always felt like we were going down the right path,” Miller said. “We were able to present them as they wanted to be presented.”

Another influencer was chairwoman Adrienne Arsht, who had a special request for the desserts: chocolate. Under the direction of Susan Gage Caterers, chocolatier Terracocoa provided chocolates on the dessert buffet, including a white chocolate box that was filled with other chocolates. There also was a candy bar where guests could fill bags of goodies to take with them as they left.

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