SFOpera - Backstage with Matthew: Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver

Backstage with Matthew: Apples of Gold in Settings of Silver

The title of this week’s backstage email refers to an exquisite book on my shelf that chronicles twelve of the greatest feasts of history. I thought it a fitting stepping-off point for a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes world of our Special Events department—a department that provides thrilling, memorable and elegant moments for so many of our opera patrons.

Special Events is a part of the development department, and they oversee all of our events that help bring donors closer to the experience of opera. They also provide incredible expertise to a whole array of other events, including support of our BRAVO! Club—our organization for young professionals. Karman Pave is our Director of Special Events, Katie Cagampan is our Special Events Manager, and together they work closely with Rebecca Scott, our Special Events Associate.

The Special Events team (l to r): Rebecca Scott, Katie Cagampan and Karman Pave. Photo Kristen Loken.

This year the Special Events department will organize some 100 events over the course of the year! Everything from intimate pre-performance dinners to huge events for hundreds of donors. They bring the same level of finesse, aesthetic brilliance and seamless management to each event, irrespective of its size. Their goal is to provide people with experiences of a lifetime, bringing them closer to the art-form they love.

I thought it would be interesting to peek behind the curtain at our biggest donor event of the year: the Medallion Society Luncheon, held annually for donors of $3,000 and more, and which we just celebrated last Friday. The luncheon was generously sponsored by our Vice Chairman Karl Mills and his firm Jurika, Mills and Keifer. It is a heartfelt, joyous way for us as a Company to say “thank you” to some 600 patrons attending the event who believe so fervently in furthering great opera in San Francisco, and who have the means to contribute at that level or higher. Kristina Flanagan, our passionately dedicated Chair of the Medallion Society, made heartfelt remarks about the inspiring journey she has taken with the company.

So how do Karman and her team go about serving an elegant lunch to 600 of our closest friends?

Adler Fellows Natalie Image and Ashley Dixon with César Cañón and John Elam making music at this year’s Medallion Society lunch.

Well, it all begins the day after the prior luncheon is over! The team debriefs from the event and starts a document outlining areas that they think could go better next year, whether those are issues with timing, food service, presentation, etc. This list of continual improvement becomes the beginning of the next annual lunch, held at the elegant Ritz-Carlton Hotel, one of the few venues in town with a ballroom big enough for our assembled guests!

The Special Events team loves this lunch—as do I! It speaks volumes to the loyalty of our core philanthropists, and it is a joy for us to make this as seamless and memorable an experience as possible. Although the aesthetics of an event like this—the décor, the color scheme, the food, etc.—are the fun parts, it’s really in the logistics that the team takes their greatest satisfaction: the smooth process of getting 600 people to the right tables in a short amount of time, the handling of last-minute cancellations, the execution of a tightly-timed schedule that allows people to get from lunch back to jobs and other commitments. All those elements that we strive for in our own home entertaining are writ large here!

The steps to planning a 600-person lunch look something like this:

• About 9 months out, dates are set with the Ritz. This sounds like it would be a simple step but in reality it’s one of the hardest, finding that sweet spot when calendars sync up between myself, board leadership, the Ritz, Adler Fellows, etc.

• 3 months out we start working with our designer to come up with the color palette and themes that will guide everything from print collateral (invitations, place cards, etc.) to the linens. Once we have a color scheme in place, the team works on all of the décor decisions in-house, partnering with a variety of vendors to put together the perfect look.

The color scheme chosen for this year’s Medallion Society lunch.

A selection of the invitations created for SFO events in recent years, primarily by designer Olivia Warnecke.

• Then it’s tasting time (my favorite part!). We typically start this in January after the holiday rush. The Chef will select 3–4 options for each course that become the basis for the tasting. Karman is a former personal chef and has a phenomenal eye and palate for what will work. Something not too heavy for lunch, something that will hold its heat well without drying out, something that won’t be too messy for people who have to go back to meetings! That will often lead to fish or chicken as the entrée, and then a delicious menu is created.


Plating 600 elegant rice puddings in the kitchen of the Ritz.

• Seating is maybe the most daunting aspect of a 600-person lunch, particularly one where entire tables are not purchased and so each donor or donor couple has to be seated individually. This is quite literally a week-long process. Each guest name is printed on a separate index card and, for three days, the cards are sorted, seated and then refined and refined and refined to try and create the best table-mate experiences based on what we know. Eventually the list is moved to an excel document which allows us to sort by name, by table, etc. But that’s not the end of the process: there can be 40–50 changes in just the last few days and the team has to be ready to reseat on a moment’s notice, sometimes just minutes before the event starts and the doors open.

The tools of the seating trade! Seating maps for individual tables and the room.

• Once seating is completed, our calligrapher extraordinaire, Rona Siegel, works her magic to create individually handwritten name cards for everyone. She is working literally up to the final moment and, as a Medallion Society member herself, we’ve been occasionally known to ask her very kindly if she would help us out mid-event as an unexpected change happens.

Calligrapher Rona Siegel working on last minute preparations at the Ritz hotel.

• Flowers are arranged through the extraordinary artistry of Bloomers and the level of floral display at these events can often be what really sets them apart from other large events. Wonderful floral arrangements are a critical part of the elegance of the Medallion Society lunch. (Putting together flowers for 60 tables should be a subject for another backstage email!)

Exquisite floral arrangements adorn the tables as far as the eye can see!

• On the day of, things begin around 6am to ready the room for an 11am start. The Adlers are doing sound checks at 10:30am so everything has to be quiet by then. Then the doors open and from then to the end, the team is finely tuning the event to ensure a wonderful responsiveness to every situation that comes up. And, very importantly, keeping me and my remarks on time!

We have incredible experience on the Special Events team! Karman Pave began in 2003 after working on events at the Main Public Library and then the Oregon Symphony. While at the Library, she had worked with Roselyne Swig, and, when Karman moved back to the Bay Area, Mrs. Swig put her in touch with the Opera and 15 years on, we are honored to have Karman’s expertise helming this department.

Katie Cagampan had taken an internship with us in her semester before graduating, and ended up helping Karman with the roll-out/introduction events for David Gockley when he began here in 2005. Katie did take a little sojourn with our friends at Grace Cathedral, but we lured her back here in 2007.

In 2016, Karman and Katie were pleased to welcome Rebecca Scott. Rebecca joined us from the Education Department where she had made a big impact and, after an internal reorganization, moved to the Events Department where she has found an enriching blend of administrative rigor and aesthetic creativity.

An expanded staff at the Ritz finishes the entrées before they are whisked into the ballroom.

This is a team of serious professionals with creative flair! They specialize in the unexpected (including medical evacuations in the midst of an event), they are naturally artistic, and enjoy entertaining at home, and they are amazingly selfless, focusing with extraordinary precision to anticipate every possible thing that could happen. They allow us to celebrate in style, such that we may never be aware that our original table-mate may have cancelled just 10 minutes before the event, and that a whole reseating of the table had to be done in the few minutes before we sit down!

Katie (left) and Karman (right) at work in the Events office at the Opera.

Thank you Karman, Katie and Rebecca for allowing us to celebrate, honor and experience the Opera in such a beautiful way.

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