The Metropolitan Opera’s 50th Benefit Gala

Theatre director Bartlett Sher, Beatrice Mozzi
and lead tenor Vittorio Grigolo
All photos: Lieba Nesis – Click images for full size views

Once every couple of years there is a night-a performance-that stands out in your mind so vividly you are transported to a different time and place. The Metropolitan Opera’s 50th benefit anniversary held on Sunday May 7, with the performance beginning at 6 PM was one of those rarefied occurrences even in the world of galas and premieres.

Conductor Marco Armiliato and Joe Domingo – son of Placido

The star of the evening was the Metropolitan Opera House itself-the magnificent edifice that has housed the greatest performances in the world for the past fifty years and its main protagonist-famed composer James Levine, who has been conducting since 1970 – when General Manager Rudolf Bing chose a 27-year-old Levine. Levine, who recently announced he would step down as Music Director, has led more than 2,500 performances.

Placido Domingo

As I sat in my orchestra seat, I could see Levine conducting in his motorized wheelchair with the ardor of a newbie. This night not only featured incredible live performances but footage of the 50-year history of the Metropolitan Opera that was spellbinding.

Conductor and legend James Levine

Tonight, we saw a young James Levine being interviewed by Tony Randall and Dick Cavett describing the confluence of factors it takes to produce a magical opera, admitting there was a metaphysical aspect to the whole process.

General Manager Peter Gelb with underwriter
of the evening Sana Sabbagh

As he received a lengthy ovation, Levine kept his back to the audience so as not to distract from his main goal of conducting – possessing the modesty of a true artist. Each opera singer blew kisses to him as he was joined throughout the evening by conductors Marco Armiliato and Yannick Nezet-Seguin. General Manager, Peter Gelb, who has scaled back on recent productions, due to severe financial difficulties, came out swinging with a night so lavish it had jaded New Yorkers roaring in approval.

Kip Forbes, CEO of Met board Judith Corrente in Schiaparelli couture,
Willem Kooyker and David Batstone

Every act had its own magnificent sets and costumes with the audience applauding before the singers even came on stage. This was all underwritten by patron of the arts Sana Sabbagh – who was shining in an Oscar de la Renta gown with spectacular emerald earrings.

 Andrew Saffir in Tom Ford and Donna Karan in her own design

I had tears in my eyes through much of the evening as we were given snippets of the best of “Otello”, “Aida”, “Madama Butterfly”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Tosca”, “La Boheme” and  “La Traviata.”

Princess and Prince de Chimay

This night was sold-out months in advance with over four thousand opera lovers from all over the world gathering to witness this happening. During intermission I photographed a couple who turned out to be Prince and Princess de Chimay of Belgium who flew in for the weekend for this extravaganza.

Annette de la Renta, Barry Diller and Diane von Furstenberg

There were throngs of luminaries including: Diane Von Furstenberg, Barry Diller, Tommy Tune, Zac Posen, Fe Fendi, Nancy Kissinger, Ann Ziff, Andrew Saffir, Annette de la Renta, Joanna and Brian Fisher, Donna Karan, Jean and Martin Shafiroff and so many others.

Jean Shafiroff, Tommy Tune and Anka Palitz

I spoke to Tommy Tune who made the astounding proclamation that this was the best night he’s ever experienced referring to it as a “symphony for the soul” and a life experience that will be etched in his memory forever. For someone who has won ten Tony Awards and the National Medal of Arts to claim this was the “greatest show on earth” is the highest accolade.

Lieba Nesis with tenor Vittorio Grigolo

This evening also welcomed the elite of the opera world with such superstars as Placido Domingo, Renee Fleming, Vittorio Grigolo, Sonya Yoncheva, Anna Netrebko and Juan Diego Florez jumping at the chance to appear-as recounted to me by Peter Gelb.

Joachim Bader, Mary Snow, Meredith Ostrom, and Zac Posen

Even the gorgeous Dmitri Hvorostovsky, who was recovering from a brain tumor, sang an aria from Rigoletto that had the audience on their feet roaring with excitement. Gelb, who was wearing an Armani suit, told me this evening had been several years in the making and he was glad “it worked.” A lot of what made the scenery so spectacular, Gelb said, were advances in technology, with the utilization of projection art bringing scenery to the next level of excellence.

Nancy Kissinger and Joanna Fisher

He also said film from this evening was being made into a larger documentary on the history of the Metropolitan Opera House that will be released in the fall. The film provided showed Eisenhower breaking ground on the Metropolitan Opera House 50 years ago with the song Hallelujah playing in the background.

Left to right famous opera singer Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Richard Kielar
and Christian Zimmermann

Kyna Leski, whose father Ted Leski was the architect of the opera house, recounted on film how the origin of the points of light that drop from the ceiling of the opera house was due to a mistake of her father who splattered paint on the etchings for the Metropolitan Opera House leading Rockefeller and Bing to assume that was the design of the chandeliers.

Fe Fendi

The evening had many highlights including Placido Domingo and Renee Fleming sharing the stage and a montage of no-longer-living opera stars including Luciano Pavarotti. Vittorio Grigolo, who sang two arias, told me he has been singing since the age of six, and was encouraged to continue by Pavarotti who told a 13-year-old Grigolo when they were performing “Tosca” together that one day Grigolo would be an opera star.

David, Lauren, Sean and mom Grace Carpenter – musicians

The performances were perfection but a highlight for me and Tommy Tune was Handel’s “Guilio Cesare” sung by Stephanie Blythe and countertenor David Daniels. His voice, which was feminine, was perfectly synchronized with Blythe and produced one of those outer body moments – the unexpectedness of the female voice duo and the power of its execution was spectacular.

The conclusion of the opera at 11 PM was met with a lengthy ovation as gold confetti was sprayed onstage along with the display of a replica of Lincoln Center. The evening was followed with a dinner in the tents with tickets starting at $2,500. It was announced to hollers of delight that $8 million was raised-an-over-the-top conclusion to a once in a lifetime evening.

– Lieba Nesis

Lieba Nesis

My love of fashion, writing and photography were something that always dominated my lifestyle however it wasn't until I was approached by the editor of Lookonline that I realized I could utilize these three skills in combination.

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