An Austrian Countess invited us to the Viennese Opera Ball in New York, a white tie charity gala. Having never experienced such an Old World extravaganza, I was curious and excited to be initiated into the magical nocturnal festivities that celebrated European traditions in the new world.
My husband Sabin and I discussed dance lessons. Years ago, I enrolled in ballroom dancing classes, which included the waltz. It was long enough ago for me to have forgotten everything except the soft seductive sweep of “1, 2, 3.” Sabin and I had good intentions but life, work, and travel intervened. The day of the ball arrived, alas, without dance instruction. Undeterred, we donned our finery.
I wore an A-line indigo gown with a full bell skirt. Its simplicity set off the sapphire necklace Michelle the Countess Czernin von Chudenitz Morzin lent me, a historical paste copy of noble jewels. What a statement they made! Multiple women bedecked in their own glittering fist-sized stones complimented me.
Sabin put on a John Varvatos tuxedo that accentuated his broad shoulders and tucked in rakishly at his waist. Eye candy, for sure, along with the Countess’s good-looking husband Bo Roberts, who was attired in white tie and tails for the occasion.
Michelle wore an off-the-shoulder black number that showed off her exquisite shoulders and the classic patrician elegance of her features and six-foot-tall form.
In short, we were all accoutered for what turned out to be a most enchanting and sumptuous event.
We arrived at Cipriani on 42ndstreet and accepted a VIP stamp on our wrists — my kid gloves, unbuttoned, gaped open at just the right spot. The stamps ushered us into the VIP room, where liveried waitstaff welcomed us with my favorite cocktail, the Bellini.
Hors-d’oeuvres circulated: an array of yummies ranging from the classic American pigs-in-the-blanket to caviar on blinis to delicately delineated lamb rib chop, meat candy! A well-flashed red carpet was set up at one end of the room, though photographers strolled and liberally snapped candids of the frolicking party-goers.
Then it was time to take our seats at our tables. We strolled out under Cipriani’s magnificent vaulting ceilings and looked out over a sea of fragrant red roses, the voluptuous table centerpieces. And that was the keynote of the gala: voluptuousness. Extravagant gorgeousness.
It sounds shallow in a world full of shadows and suffering, but it had the effect of uplifting all who participated. There is something about splendor that fills us with light. We were taking part in something larger than ourselves, something that alludes to beauty and graciousness and a light spirit. Added to that was the generous feeling of benefitting cancer research; the proceeds of the 64th Viennese Opera Ball went to the music therapy program at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center with support from Gabrielle’s Angel Foundation for Cancer Research.
Cipriani burrata awaited us at our table, along with delicious Austrian wines, red, white, and sparkling. I took the opportunity to ogle the panoply of magnificent ball gowns, many of which were surely couture. Of particular note was Gala Chair Jean Shafiroff’s green and gold creation, an artistic work in its own right, and worn to physique-fitting perfection by Ms. Shafiroff.
Then came the Presentation of Colors and National Anthems, the kind of pageantry that carries the common fervor of both patriotism and trans-Atlantic friendship. Respect and good relationships are forged when people stand together to honor each other’s anthems.
The Debutantes and Escorts were presented. It was pomp and circumstance of the most enjoyable kind, with the lovely Debs in their white dresses hearkening back to lost ages of innocence and wonderment. I looked at their sweet, rapt faces, knowing they must have practiced assiduously for this moment, and wishing them joy and good fortune as they proceed on their journeys.
Then there was Opera. My god, what song filled that room! Lucas Meachem’s “Barber of Seville” was a highlight for me. He sang with over-the-top gusto and playfulness, eliciting laughter and raucous applause. Accompanied by the superb Viennese Orchestra, each of the operatic stars performed with consummate skill. These were bravissimi performances that roused the audience to peaks of delight. Music exalts us; this was music specifically designed to do that, and it was expertly accomplished.
The astonishingly lovely Rihab Chaieb sat at our table, and the Tunisian-born mezzo soprano proved to be as charming a dinner companion as she is a virtuoso performer.
I most enjoyed the old tradition of the Midnight Quadrille. Sabin declined to join the festivities so Bo squired me into the fray. The floor was thronged with dancers, few of whom knew how to Quadrille. Our enthusiasm was undiminished by our ignorance. Roman E. Svabek and Sandra Stockmayer, the masters of ceremony of dance, instructed us with high good humor. We dancers laughed as we threw ourselves into the back-and-forth, right-hand circles, and partner exchanges to the sounds of Divertimento Viennese. Then, hilariously punctuating our attempts — we jumped! to close the round.
Bo and I kept ending up in the wrong places, though no one seemed to mind. In fact, the Honorable Helmut Boeck, the Consul General of Austria in New York, stood across from me and bowed graciously, with a good-natured smile, every time we approached one another.
What is it about men in tails that makes them so appealing? Is it just the elegance, or is that the clothes make the inner man so dashing, too?
Indeed, I believe it’s the inward qualities of the Ball that make it so significant. Dance, music, song, and beauty elevate us into a common generosity of spirit. Courtesy at its best does that, it unites us with the kindness of mutual consideration. Grandeur can engage our best selves. It can vault us out of the pedestrian details of our daily lives so that we share a transcendent experience.
In this way, the Viennese Opera ball can be enjoyed as a sumptuous spectacle of fanfare and ceremony. Daniel Serafin, the artistic director and a noted opera singer in his own right, deftly designed the ball that way. It can also ravish us the way poetry does, changing our frame of reference and reminding us of other, more graceful ways to live.
I recommend the latter, as I recommend the Viennese Opera Ball in New York.