Thursday, May 2, 2013
Stepping Out at the Gala
Cocktail hour at the Gala
Katja has loved the opera since she was a little girl and used to listen to the Met on the radio on Saturday afternoons at her grandparents’ house. I doubt if I ever heard an opera as a kid, but Katja started getting tickets for us when we moved here as a young married couple. Back then the opera was held at the zoo, and the performers had to compete with noisy elephants and hyenas. After going to summer opera for many years with her mother or me, Katja joined the Opera League last year, a volunteer organization which does fund-raising, educational programs, etc. She asked me to join the League too, but, being more of a country music guy and pretty nonsocial, it made me nervous and I didn’t want to do it. Katja understood and said the only thing she wanted me to do was to go in the spring to the Opera Gala, a formal dinner-dance affair for opera lovers and supporters. I wasn’t enthused, but it was a long way off, and I reluctantly agreed.
We haven’t danced for a long time, so we signed up in late February for ballroom dance lessons at the university. The class meets on Tuesday afternoons, and there are about two dozen members, mostly novices. We’d taken ballroom dancing years ago, so this was a refresher. We started with the foxtrot and the rumba; then the waltz and the meringue and an introduction to swing. We also learned a Latin dance called the bachata which was fun though we’d never heard of it. After a few weeks we felt like we’d at least be able to foxtrot reasonably well.
The Gala was scheduled for late April. Katja started shopping for a ballgown a couple of months in advance, but she was disappointed in the stock in local department stores. She asked if I’d like to drive up to Chicago to shop for a ball gown there, but I responded by pretending to lapse into a coma. Finally she ordered a ball gown she found in a catalog from an exclusive department store in Texas. The gown arrived a week later, and it looked pretty elegant to me, but Katja wasn’t certain. She tried several bridal shops in the suburbs, but they said that they needed three months’ advance notice, and by then it had gotten too late.
Sometime in March we got a letter from the Opera League, describing details of the event. One line stood out to me: “for husbands, appropriate dress will be white tie and gloves.” I read the line aloud to Katja and insisted that I wasn’t wearing a white tie, and I definitely wasn’t wearing gloves. She just laughed and said that I could wear my gardening gloves. That was funny, but only slightly.
The week of the Gala rolled around, and they gave a short description of the event in the entertainment section of the newspaper. My heart nearly stopped when I saw that the tickets ran from $250 to $5000 per person. I worried for a brief moment that we’d spent $10,000, but that didn’t seem realistic. I was afraid to ask and decided I’d better make a serious effort to enjoy the occasion. Katja had bought me some new leather shoes for dancing, and I started breaking them in. She’d wanted me to get a tuxedo, but I said I would make do with the black velvet jacket and black slacks that she’d bought me ten years ago. On the day of the Gala Katja had an appointment with her hairdresser, Kevin. Kevin said he could imagine Katja at the Gala, but he couldn’t quite see me at it. I said Kevin was right on target. When we got dressed, Katja put on a luxurious multi-level pearl and gold necklace that she’d bought years ago and that she’d never had occasion to wear. She looked very lovely.
The Gala was held at a fancy downtown hotel. The cocktail hour started at 6:30, and we arrived at 6:45, leaving our car in the hands of valet parking. Roughly five hundred people had gathered in the hotel’s gigantic ballroom which featured 40-foot high mirrors and moving clouds on the ceiling. All the men were dressed in tuxedos. I only saw one or two white ties (mainly black bow-ties; a few red, a couple plaid), and I didn’t notice any men wearing gloves. The women were elegantly dressed in floor-length ball gowns, lots with gold or silver gilt and occasional corsages. By and large, it was an older crowd – mostly white haired – and it looked like high society to me. We met up right away with our friends, Molly and Charles, who we’d known were going. I’d been given an envelope when we checked in, and Charles said I should have two tickets for complimentary drinks. I couldn’t find them in my envelope so I went back to the registration table to correct the situation. The woman at the table asked what “level” I was. I said I didn’t know, but that my friend said I should have gotten two complimentary tickets. She politely handed me a pair of tickets for drinks, and I got a Manhattan for myself and a white wine for Katja.
At 7:30 we went upstairs to another huge room and sat down at a table for eight with Charles, Molly, and several strangers. Looking around, everyone seemed to be having a fine time – lots of smiles and animated conversation. Katja was chatty and fun; I was pretty quiet. The waiters were readily available to fill the wine glasses, and I had four or five glasses of white wine in the course of the meal. Dinner was good except for the sirloin steak entrée which was tough. Katja couldn’t cut hers, so we traded portions. I felt bad for the people who paid $5000 for tough steak. Just before dessert an opera star from the Met came out and did four songs, including “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady”. She wore a gold gilt dress, had a beautiful voice, and received an enthusiastic ovation.
When dinner ended, we went back downstairs to the ballroom for dancing. A DJ was playing music which a friend later explained was “club music”. It was very fast, very loud, and had a constant beat. Molly and Charles listened for a few minutes, then decided it was time to go home. Katja and I made our way up to the front of the room. Despite several hundred people being present, only a smallish group were dancing at any given time. The dancers were mostly younger people in their thirties and forties, doing free-style, no-touch dancing; also a few balding men struggling to keep up with their younger trophy wives. Katja and I waited for the DJ to play a foxtrot, but that never happened, nor did he ever play a waltz or a rumba. Given a mostly post-age-65 crowd, the hip DJ’s music selection seemed out of place. Finally we decided to try the bachata, which you can do to anything that has a steady beat. That worked o.k., though we were the only bachata dancers in the place. Then we did some swing dancing too. We danced for most of the next two hours, and we had as much fun as we’ve had in quite a while. The party was still going full force at 11:30, but we decided to call it a night. Katja said she hoped we’d go dancing again in the future.
When I went to valet parking, I gave the guy our ticket and said we’d been at the Opera Gala. He asked me if I had a complimentary ticket for parking. When I said I didn’t have one, he said the parking would cost $15. That seemed like a terrible mistake, so I went back upstairs to the registration table and told the lady that I hadn’t gotten my complimentary parking ticket. As she’d done earlier the evening, she asked what level I was. I said I wasn’t sure, but I thought that I was probably at the $250 level. Giving me a look that I interpreted as scornful, she said, “That’s why. You don’t get complimentary parking at the $250 level.” I think I must have appeared so forlorn that a nicer lady started looking around to see if they had any extra parking passes. Much to my luck, she finally found one and gave it to me. I thanked her profusely at least two or three times.
When we got home, Katja asked me to unhook her necklace. I fiddled with it for several minutes, but I couldn’t get the clasp undone. I thought maybe part of it had broken off. Katja tried for a while, but she couldn’t do it either. Finally she said I should just break it apart, and she would have it repaired. I proposed instead that she go to sleep with her necklace on, and we’d find a jeweler the next day. In the morning I located a mall jewelry store that was open on Sunday, and we drove out. The clerk at the store took a look at the clasp, pushed on it once, and it popped open. She smiled; we laughed, both of us a little embarrassed. I tried it myself while we were there with the clerk. It popped right open for me too. Driving home, I thought to myself that we’d managed to get through the Opera Gala unscathed. But I was happy to be back in reality.
-Vicki L (5-3): Hi David, Your Gala story left me breathless. I just don't know how you do it. In some ways, your marriage to Katja mimics mine to George - the partner consistently pulling us onto our growing (or is that 'groaning') edge. I'm so glad you had a great time. The finale at the jewelers was a lovely tribute to aging. Sis