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The San Francisco Opera Opening Night production of Romeo and Juliet inspired the gala theme of “The Capulets’ Masked Ball.”

Los Angeles has the Oscar’s Red Carpet, New York has the Met Ball, and San Francisco has its Opera opening galas that are their equal in glamour and excitement. For many, it is a tradition to attend the prestigious Opera Gala that opens the San Francisco fall social season and is one of the West Coast’s most glamorous events.

The Opera Guild produced the highly anticipated opening night gala that launched the San Francisco Opera 2019-20 season.


As usual, and for good reason, opera supporters came from the entire Bay Area to attend the 2019 opening, the start of the Opera’s 97th season. In a nod to the featured presentation, Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, the evening’s theme was “The Capulets’ Masked Ball.” Romance was in the air. 

Opera devotees rose to the challenge by donning imaginative creations to wear at the masquerade ball that, along with a sumptuous dinner, a brilliant performance, and an upbeat after-party, made the evening memorable.

The sensational performance of the evening was Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, a French adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic love story.


This year’s Opera Gala was co-chaired by Elizabeth Birka-White and Jane Mudge (Opera Guild President 2016-2018), joined by honorary chairs and longtime opera patrons John and Cynthia Fry Gunn and Diane B. Wilsey. 

SF Opera General Director Matthew Shilvock, gala co-chairs Elizabeth Birka-White and Jane Mudge, and Kate Shilvock.
L. to r.: Bill Poland and current SF Opera Guild President Mary Poland; Grammy Award-winning soprano Deborah Voigt who has been involved with the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.
BRAVO! Club (for the younger set) board members Alex Jakle, Nora White, Laura Della Guardia, Lilian Tsai, Leah Fine, Zak Beard, Nicole Jiam, Shannon Eliot, Krist Symon, Caitlin Gutekunst, Arif Damji, Xanadu Bruggers, and Keith Cantrelle.
Tore Diskerud, Benjamin Malin, Turid Diskerud, Sebastian Malin, and Gregory Malin. The Opera Guild established a fund in memory of the late Charlot Malin, Guild President from 2014-2016.


Just as the French have “la rentrée,” San Franciscans return home from their summer hiatus to resume their normal routine, and for many the opera is the first time to catch up with their friends. 

With champagne glasses in hand during the cocktail reception, gala-goers mingled in the magnificent foyer of the War Memorial Opera House. The room was resplendent with women in spectacular designer gowns escorted by men wearing elegant black (or white) tie in grand opera tradition.

Paul Nahi, Sheila Nahi, Maryam Muduroglu, Oran Muduroglu, Nazan Orr, and Charles Orr, a family that attends the opera together.
Sonya Molodetskaya never fails to wow the crowd with her over-the-top opera ball gown selection.
Former SF Mayor Willie L. Brown Jr. and current SF Mayor London N. Breed; Keith Cantrelle and Jonathan Dant.
SF Opera Association President Keith Geeslin and Priscilla Geeslin; Stephanie Lawrence and Jeanne Lawrence.
Philanthropist David Shimmon and Mary Beth Shimmon; Adriana de Torres-Fernandez and Consul General of Peru Hernando Torres-Fernández.
Fashionistas Jennifer Walske, Dr. Carolyn Chang, Komal Shah, and Mary Beth Shimmon.
Composer Jake Heggie with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, an American singer who has performed in operas, musicals, concerts, and recitals around the world; Jesse Lee Eller and Camille Bently.
Jim Milner, Elisa Stephens, Heide Betz, with son Michael Betz.
Gary V. Garabedian, past Guild President Karen Kubin, Abbi Schreck, and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen.
Another opera-going family: David and Elizabeth Birka-White, Julia Birka-White, Rashmi Rikhy, Michael Barnard, and Adam Birka-White.
Allison Speer, Nonie B. Ramsay, Michael Barnard, Andrew Ramsay, Klaus Murer, Nicol Dominiuk, and D.D. Felton.
Aaron Farley, Victoria, Christian Weiss, and Caitlin Gutekunst.
Joel Goodrich with Jan Shrem and Maria Manetti Shrem, who established the Emerging Stars and Conductors Fund.
Patricia Ferrin Loucks, Olivia Hsu Decker, Alisa Burgess-Blajwas, and Belinda Berry.
L. to r.: Jake Weiss with Denise Littlefield Sobel, whose family has supported 24 opera productions; Honorary Chairs and benefactors John and Cynthia Fry Gunn with Matthew Shilvock, SF Opera General Director.
Barbara Brown, Joseph Tobin III, and Laura Andrews.
L. to r.: Chandler Properties CEO Carolyn Chandler (looking divine in red) and Christopher Lawrie; Samantha Duval Bechtel and Darren Bechtel.
Consul General of Italy Lorenzo Ortona, Sheila Ortona, Cynthia Livermore, and Richard Livermore.
L. to r.: Board Member Karen Richardson; Rada Katz, Farah Makras, and Sonya Molodetskaya dressed to impress.
L. to r.: Beverly Barnett and Cross Marketing PR CEO, Claudia Ross; Talented designers Michael Purdy and Jay Jeffers.


As always, the opera crowd had to be coaxed to leave the champagne reception, but all eventually made their way to the Tent Pavilion, where the lively conversations continued throughout dinner.

In honor of the opening the SF Opera’s 97th season, the beaux-art City Hall was lit in green, white, and red, the colors of the Italian flag.
L. to r.: Former SF Opera General Director David Gockley with Linda Kemper; Robin Collins and Alan Liss.
L. to r.: Daniel Girard, Linle Froeb, Ann Girard, and George Hume; Jonathan Bowie and Mai Shiver, a former San Franciscan, now in New York City.
Maggie Orseth, Luke Rundle, Leah Fine, Nicholas Ruder, Olga Gordon, and Steven Paul.


Some 750 patrons attended this year’s sold-out black-tie dinner in the splendid Tented Pavilion created by Ideas Event’s Riccardo Benavides. He drew his inspiration from the Renaissance gardens of Verona, Italy, the home of Shakespeare’s ill-fated lovers, Romeo and Juliet.

Opera attendees were transported to Verona, Italy and the gardens of the Capulet family where guests sipped on wines supplied by Roederer Estate and J. Lohr Vineyards. Perfect!
Guests feasted on a first course of Maine lobster, with an entrée of filet mignon, and limoncello meringue tart for dessert, by McCall’s Catering.
L. to r.: SF Mayor London Breed and SF Protocol Chief Charlotte Shultz; Fashion designer Yuka Uehara with Waiton Farrell, both decked out in Uehara designs.
L. to r.: Claudia Ross, event designer Riccardo Benavides, Lisa Zabelle, and Todd Zabelle; Philip Pemberton and Deepa Pakianathan, a venture capitalist who loves fashion.
Komal Shah, Gaurav Garg, Dr. Carolyn Chang, and Riccardo Benavides.
L. to r.: Fashion designer Karen Caldwell and Etiquette Guru Lisa Grotts; Kelly Cronan attended with her parents Dan and Shannon Cronan.
Jack Calhoun, Dede Wilsey, and Thomas Campbell, the current Director of the SF Fine Arts Museums and former director of NYC’s Metropolitan Museum
Markos Kounalakis, Farah Makras, Lt. Governor of California Eleni Kounalakis, and Victor Makras.
Jim and Lisa Zanze.
Markos Kounalakis, Lt. Governor Eleni Kounalakis, Jennifer Betz, and Alex Chases.
Jake Heggie, Faranak Shahroozi, Steve Lohr, and Elaine Mellis.


Charles Gounod’s Romeo & Juliet was first performed by the SF Opera during its very first season in October 1923. For me, it was special to watch the young Nadine Sierra perform as Juliet. I first saw her perform at the annual Festival Napa Valley in July 2015 when she was only 27 years old. Even then we knew she’d be a star and she has since performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House and at the Paris Palais Garnier Opera House.

This presentation of Romeo and Juliet featured 96 performers—14 principals, 60 chorus members, 8 dancers, and 14 supernumeraries—making it quite a big-budget production.
Romeo (Pene Pati) and Juliet (Nadine Sierra) meet for the first time.
Mercutio (Lucas Meachem), friend of Romeo and kin to Verona’s Prince Escalus.
Tybalt (Daniel Montenegro), Juliet’s cousin, and Romeo cross swords in a brawl.
Tybalt and Mercutio lie dead in the street, casualties of a feud between families.
Friar Lawrence (James Creswell) marries the two young lovers in secret.
Romeo discovers what appears to be the lifeless body of Juliet, which leads to the heartbreaking denouement.


Following the beautiful, touching performance, opera gala patrons and the BRAVO! members returned to the Tented Pavilion for the after-party for some more nibbles and drinks, socialize with friends—and discuss the opera, no doubt.

Partygoers exclaimed this was one of the most spirited and lively after-parties yet, as the Committee had generously included the BRAVO! crowd. These younger and energetic dancers packed the dance floor until the end of the evening—long after the clock had struck midnight.

Beverly Barnett, Navid Armstrong, Claudia Ross, and friend taking a break before they head off to the after-party.
The band Pop Rocks kept the dance floor reverberating.
Tim Mix, Daniel Montenegro, Lucas Meachem, Maria Manetti Shrem, and the night’s star performers, Nadine Sierra and Pene Pati.
Trent Norris, Jack Calhoun, Claudia Ross, Keith C. Wetmore, Joshua Morgan, Karla Haynes, and Andrew Hinek.
Maryam Rahimian, Barry Chehrazi, Farah Makras, SF Supervisor Ahsha Safaí, and Elizabeth Zareh.
The dance floor was packed all night!

Photos by Drew Altizer, Riccardo Benavides, and courtesy San Francisco Opera.

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