Opera Ball Turns French Ambassador's Residence (and Performers) Into Light Exhibition

The Washington National Opera transformed the French ambassador's residence into a fantasy garden and light show for its annual Opera Ball.

By Adele Chapin June 11, 2008, 10:15 AM EDT

Performers in lit-up costumes greeted guests.

Photo: JC Martins/FotoBriceno for BizBash

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Everything was illuminated at French ambassador Pierre Vimont’s residence in Kalorama on Friday night for the Washington National Opera’s annual Opera Ball—the company’s largest fund-raiser of the year (tickets start at $1,000), which drew heavy hitters such as Congressman Dennis Kucinich, Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. The event was appropriately theatrical, bathing the turn-of-the-century mansion in light. To create the effects, Washington National Opera director of special events Patti Humphrey turned to, at the ambassador’s behest, lighting designer Julien Pavillard—the artistic director of the winter Festival of Lights in Lyon, France. 

Pavillard drew inspiration from Versailles, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and elements of opera to create the glowing garden party. The outdoor display—set up over four days, despite the torrential downpours and the heat wave that followed—included 4,000 flower-shaped glass votives, red and white rope lights arranged in the yard, and five chandeliers hanging from a huge tree in the backyard. Fifteen panoramic lighting displays set up behind the trees added to the otherworldly glow.

But lights weren’t just part of the scenery—the 20 performers that attended the event wore glowing costumes. One opera singer, decked in white lights from the top of her headdress to the tip of her fingers, greeted the 500 guests upon their arrival at 10 p.m while singing and dancing down the driveway. (The countertenor dressed in red lights at the residence’s entrance was more stationary, since he was plugged into an outlet by the front door.) The attendees came by car or limo after a seated dinner at 22 different ambassadors’ residences—an annual tradition for the event.

The evening marked a return to a classic for the ball, which is always hosted by an ambassador (last year’s was Peru). “It was time to go back to a venue that is well loved,” said Humphrey. “Certainly all opera lovers are enamored with the French embassy and French culture.”

To increase the house's space, Karl's Event Rentals erected a tent with a clear plastic top that connected to the back of the home. “We built the tent floor eight feet off the ground to enter right into the house, so you can flow from room to room to the ballroom and back in,” said Humphrey. The tent’s look mimicked the garden, with five large crystal chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and metal gazebos covered in roses. Also in the tent: a dance floor and stage for the Bob Hardwick Sound orchestra. 

While the residence’s head chef, Bertrand Bellengier, catered the interior room, setting up crème brûlée and macaroons in the ornate Empire room, Occasions Caterers handled the desserts in the tent. This included baskets of fresh fruits and a display of a chocolate hen and hollowed eggshells filled with vanilla custard and a passion fruit gelée. Despite the heat, guests flocked to the flambé station, where four on-site chefs offered made-to-order crêpes suzette.

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