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An Opera Gala Scaled Back for Gloomy Times

Washington National Opera president Ken Feinberg and Miss D.C. Kate Marie Grinold. (Russell Hirshon.)

New year, new economic reality. Which means all those glitzy Washington fundraisers have to reinvent themselves if they want to survive.

First up: Saturday's Washington National Opera Midwinter Gala, a black-tie benefit for the company's education programs.

"There's no recession in this 17-square-mile logic-free environment!" former senator Conrad Burns told the crowd during the live auction. But he was wrong -- the only dinner chat in the Mellon Auditorium was about (a) when the economy would bottom out, (b) how to raise money and (c) who might give it to the opera.

Greek ambassador Alexandros Mallias, "Alexander the Great" and WNO executive director Mark Weinstein. (Russell Hirshon.)

No bailout here. After Wall Street tanked and corporations stopped writing checks, gala organizers were forced to scale back everything from ticket prices (slashed from $1,000 to $500) to decor and centerpieces: flickering lanterns and artful veggies -- headed to a food bank at the end of the night -- instead of fresh flowers. Sales were down from last year, but the party lured 300 guests and inched into the black.

"What you see here is a slightly toned-down event," WNO Executive Director Mark Weinstein said. "We're trying not to be over the top, which opera often is."

"Toned-down" meant actors dressed as Alexander the Great and Aristotle for the night's theme celebrating Macedonia, Greece. Greek Ambassador Alexandros Mallias cracked jokes. Patrons drank ouzo. Miss D.C. Kate Marie Grinold -- a dancer fresh off her Top.10 finish in the Miss America pageant -- spent the evening surrounded by (mostly male) fans. There was still a band, and the dance floor was jammed all night.

"It's a dark time," said gala co-chair Rebecca Miller. "You can't get around it. You can still have fun -- you just have to be more creative about it."

By The Reliable Source  |  February 9, 2009; 7:42 AM ET
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