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Party Hopping

'Evening on Nile' Sends Opera Pacific to the Bank

November 19, 1987|Ann Conway

They dubbed it "An Evening on the Nile," but "Jewel of the Nile" could have been the title for the gala that lit up the Disneyland Hotel.

More than 700 bejeweled guests flocked to the Egyptian-themed benefit that netted $75,000 for Opera Pacific, producer of opera in Orange County.

But while the lorgnette set sipped, supped and swirled to Murray Korda's orchestra in a blaze of diamond baubles, a tiny anklet told another story. "It's a slave bracelet," whispered gala co-chairwoman Donna Bunce, lifting her gilt-embroidered skirt to reveal the gold trinket. "Engraved with: 'Slave to the arts.' "

The keepsake was a gift from good friend Joanne Sokolski, who was unable to attend the affair. "She gave one to Gayle Anderson (gala co-chairwoman) as well," Bunce said.

Hardly surprising. Combined, Bunce and Anderson are the David Wolper of local gala-giving.

Take Saturday night: Using for a theme the grand opera "Aida" (Opera Pacific's 1988 season opener), Bunce and Anderson asked fine artist Ray Hare to transform the Grand Ballroom stage into a breathtakingly authentic-looking "temple on the Nile."

Two gigantic, sepia-toned "columns," each hand-painted with hieroglyphs, flanked an acrylic-and-lacquer mural depicting the ancient river. Beside the columns stood two gigantic "Egyptian sentries," regal figures bearing fans plumed with fresh pampas grass.

Six leafy, 18-foot "palms"--trunks swaddled in burlap and fronds freshly cut from date palms--framed the stage. And not far from the tree clusters stood two monumental Egyptian statues, towering over two of the three parquet dance floors.

With arias from "Aida" piped over the sound system, gala underwriters--like other guests, invited to don Egyptian costumes for the affair--gathered in the ballroom early to tip tulips of champagne, pose for souvenir photographs and view living tableaux depicting classic scenes from "Aida," "Samson and Delilah," "Orfeo" and "Thais."

Trumpeters heralded the start of the ball for other guests, who enjoyed their cocktail hour in the ballroom's vast reception area.

Before dining on the "Pharoah's feast"--which included filet of beef with oyster duxelle and desserts such as "Ramses' Passion" and "Aida's Delight"--delighted guests watched "Moorish slave dancers" perform a number "right out of Aida's boudoir," said George F. Weston Jr., director of volunteer services for Opera Pacific.

After dinner--served up with a 1985 Sauvignon Blanc and a 1980 Cabernet Sauvignon--selections from "Aida" were performed by Ester Martinez, who portrayed Aida--an Ethiopian princess-turned-slave--and Armando Sierra, who sang the role of Radames--the Egyptian warrior who was her lover.

"I've been to many opera balls around the country," said Floss Schumacher, during the underwriter's reception. "And this is far superior to anything they do at the Met. This is wonderful. " The bubbly opera buff--founder of Opera Pacific's elite Impresario Circle--said she had been listening to "Aida" tapes for six months to prepare for the production, which will open at the Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa on Jan. 16.

"I know I'm just going to get up and sing at that first performance!" she said. "You become a part of it."

Committee member Milli Wiesneck had already become a part of it. Dressed in a stunning vintage Mary McFadden gown, hair poufed and entwined with gold braid, she declared: "I'd do it for Herbie." Wiesneck spoke of Aida's decision to entomb herself with Radames after learning he was to be buried alive. "You would? " her husband, a banker, asked in wide-eyed wonder.

"I'd do it for Stephen, too," said Kit Toth--"Cleopatra" in a coal-black wig and gown in three parts (strung together with precious metals) bought on the French Riviera.

"But what else can I say with Stephen standing right here?" she asked with a giggle.

Anderson and Bunce dressed regally for the affair. In a gold bugle-beaded gown by Gildas of Newport Beach, Anderson--pleated chiffon cape flowing behind her as she greeted guests around the ballroom--portrayed Princess Amneris, daughter of the opera's Egyptian ruler. Gold-frosted cobras sprouted from her headpiece. And faux turquoise cabachons decorated her ears and encrusted her collar and arm cuffs.

Bunce dressed as Aida, slave to Amneris. Gold rhinestones sparkled about her heavily made-up eyes. Strings of gold beads swung from her headband. And her figure-hugging gown--neatly wrapped in a wide, metallic sash--was fashioned by Elena of Mission Viejo, her personal designer.

Both women said it would be a while before they conducted another gala. "I would like to do some special event planning for a public relations firm," said Bunce, who added she was about to start job hunting.

Anderson has plans to go into the real estate business. "Opera Pacific asked us to chair the ball again next year," Anderson said. "But we told them we wanted to wait until 1990."

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