Saturday, March 5, 2016

The 61st Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf Hotel

I had the grand pleasure of covering the 61st Viennese Opera Ball at the Waldorf Hotel in New York. The words “Viennese Opera Ball” have long been synonymous with international glamour, romantic elegance and prestige. The earliest Viennese Opera Balls can be traced to the late 18th century and reached their zenith in the brilliant balls and receptions held during the 1814 Congress of Vienna. They were commemorated in history with the observation that “The Congress didn’t sit, it danced.” 

The Austrian court hosted international leaders and crowned heads of state at Viennese Opera Balls. In 1854, the young Emperor Franz Joseph decreed that Vienna, the seat of his court, would be newly laid out; he added the proviso: “…the new opera house should be used for the performance of operas and ballets as well as for the celebrations of opera balls..” 

Until the early 19th century, the waltz, a dance in which the partners touch and swirl together- was considered too erotic and exciting to include in events where propriety was in order. But when the great composer and orchestra director Johann Strauss was named Dance Music Director of the Imperior Court in 1835, the waltz received formal approval as an official dance in Vienna. 

Johann Strauss went on to compose over 150 waltzes and did concert tours with his orchestra, introducing Viennese music to Europe. His son, Johann Strauss, Jr. became known as the “Waltz King,” as he wrote over 400 waltzes, including “Tales of the Vienna Woods,” Songs of Spring, and “Emperor Waltz.” 

The waltz and the Viennese Opera all became an important Austrian Cultural phenomenon. Over time, the concept of the ball was refined to ensure that the ambiance remained true to the tradition. Thus, in 1877, the first of the “court opera soirees” (known as the “Hofopern- Soireen”) was staged. The Strauss orchestra performed under the direction of Edward Strauss (Johann, Jr.’s younger brother). 

Today, the Viennese Opera Ball remains an international social landmark. The February 28, 2016, Ball in New York marked the 61st consecutive Viennese Opera Ball held under the auspices of the U.S.-Austrian Chamber of Commerce. It has become the perfect way for transplanted Austrians to celebrate their culture with their many international friends. This year’s charity beneficiaries included: Ronald McDonald House of New York and New York Rotary Foundation. To learn more visit:

I arrived at the Waldorf with the biggest smile on my face, as I couldn’t wait to experience what the Viennese Ball had in store for me. As with all epic fairy tale stories I started mine with walking down the hotel’s ethereal staircase in a THEIA beaded petal gown, which was covered in crystals that transitioned into a sea of glamorous petals. I completed my look with sparkling earrings, and white opera gloves in honor of the evening’s themed ball.

My best friend Robyn Herman, who’s also my attorney, was my unofficial photographer at the ball, helping to capture many of the amazing photos for this post. In fact, the evening would not be entirely possible if it weren’t for her. 

My schedule that week was a bit busier than I thought it would be, so I didn’t have a chance to choose our gowns. Luckily Robyn had a few minutes of time the day before the ball and picked out two stunning THEIA gowns for us to wear. 

Like a fine wine the gowns were a perfect pairing to our personalities. My THEIA gown was inline with my love of Great Gatsby style, particularly the looks Daisy Buchanan wore. Robyn’s gown also matched her personality perfectly as she looked like a gorgeous modern day Audrey Hepburn. 

I was lucky to hunt down a pair of opera gloves for us to wear and let me tell you it wasn’t such an easy fete! After looking in 5+ stores, I’d almost given up hope, until I came across a store just across the street from my office. Just 3 hours before the ball! How’s that for fashion fate?! I got white gloves for me, and black ones for Robyn to match her gown. Our looks came together perfectly, as if we planned this for months but ironically Robyn and I always pull off our best looks very last minute!

I had the absolute honor of meeting our first new friend at the Viennese Ball, HRH Princess Marina Sturdza, a member of Romania's oldest reigning royal families. 

Princess Marina was so kind to us, and everything you would expect a royal to be. We spent what felt like a magical length of time talking with the Princess about her Romanian heritage, her patronage of the Viennese Ball and bonding over our shared European heritage. 

It’s not every day that we get to meet a royal, but Princess Marina was more than her title. You could feel how warm and welcoming she was. In fact, after a bit of research after meeting I discovered her impressive repertoire of raising millions of euros for deserving charities, in addition to being an internationally renowned journalist, vice-president of a famous fashion house, UNICEF executive and organizer of major international investment summits. 

More about the incredible Princess here.

Reading her interview really hit close to home for me in many ways, not the royalty part, obviously, but the fact that we were both refugees when we arrived in America. Just like the Princess, I was also a product of Europe, and it was extremely hard for me to assimilate as a European kid in an American school. I was always different, and the obstacles I faced as a result made me realize that I can leverage being different and achieve even greater things in life. Which all leads me back to the ball, and meeting the lovely Princess Marina Sturdza. I hope we get a chance to meet again soon, as I would love to hear more of your incredible stories!

After meeting the Princess, I couldn’t resist to indulge in the yummy quail eggs wrapped in salmon, and topped with caviar. The Russian in me was obviously on cloud 9, as it’s a rarity for me to eat caviar here in America!

Robyn and I toasted to our brilliant first hour at the ball. I was so happy we could share this adventure together. We both love to create interesting stories for ourselves, but together we are the ultimate magnets for an epic adventure.

After the cocktail hour, guests were told to start heading down stairs to the grand ball room to commence the evening’s festivities.

Amongst the crowd of people walking to dinner, were a pair of sheep en route to take part in the evening's performance. Wait, sheep at the Waldorf? In diapers? Yup that happened, but ironically not the craziest tale of the night. Read on!

I stopped to peek at the decadent auction items, which included a selection of luxury handbags.

Walking into the grand four-storey ball room at the Waldorf completely took my breath away. If I could freeze a sliver of time, and just live in one moment, that would certainly be it. It was a magnificent setting, which provided the perfect ambience for a magical evening of pure opulence.

Each table was lavishly adorned with white flower centerpieces that streamed over crystal candles and the start of the evening’s appetizer. Bottles of the finest Austrian wines were provided courtesy of Niche Import Co, as they have done so for the past years. That same generous and loyal spirit is found in their company philosophy.

A full symphony orchestra led by Peter Duchin took the stage to play Mozart classics. I couldn’t help but listen in awe as the charming melodies entranced the Waldorf ballroom.

The Viennese Ball was full of interesting characters, but one of my favorites was Benjamin Flagg. The dapper Mr. Flagg is a jack of all trades, but most notably a hilarious teller of stories on his travel blog, Travel Deviant. It’s interesting how we gravitate to people who are most like us in some way. Robyn and I instantly became friends with Ben within a few minutes of realizing that he shares the same sense of slapstick humor. Naturally, a quick photo shoot ensued with his top hat when we realized he loved pictures as much as we do!

Once guests were seated, the evening’s festivities in the Waldorf ballroom commenced with a grand march of dignitaries, escorted by United States Military Academy from West Point. The fine list of military gentlemen included: Cadet Captain Michael Willis, Cadet Captain Alexander Stewart, Cadet Captain Nicholas Greene, Cadet Lieutenant Joshua Akers, Cadet Lieutenant Pierce Freeman, Cadet Sergeant Matthew McCarthy, Cadet Sergeant Clayton Vermeesch, Cadet Corporal Cody Akers, Cadet Corporal Zachary Trainor.

Next, the Viennese Ball debutantes dressed in white gowns walked out with their handsome dates.

Following the grand march of dignitaries and debutantes, Mozart came to life in a spectacular performance. The performance was called Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Anniversary Highlight: Salieri Recalls the Wunderkind. “Iche geh’ jetzt auf die Weide” from Mozart’s Bastien und Bastienne”. Performance by Jeffrey Mattsey as Salieri, Amy Shoremount-Obra as Bastienne, and Elisha Nilsen as Young Mozart.

Next, the lovely debutantes took the dance floor for a customary waltz, which was choreographed by Heinz Heidenreich, the Artist Director of the Vienna Event.  

Guests were invited to join the debutantes on the dance floor for an evening of magical waltzing. A sea of colorful ball gowns swept ever so gracefully at the Waldorf’s grand ballroom.

Our new friend Benjamin came to join in the fun and even offered his services in attempting to teach us how to waltz! Robyn did quite well, but I on the other hand definitely need some work!

It was so much fun watching the more experienced dancers, like the ever charming Cole Rumbough, a famous jazz and cabaret performer who dedicates his art to preserving and promoting the romance and songwriting genius of the American Popular. Cole was due to grace guests with his talents a bit later in the evening for a special performance.

While back at our table I couldn’t help but really appreciate the enormity of the evening. I’ve been to these types of events in the past, but the Viennese Ball certainly exceeded all possible expectations. Every magical moment felt like the best dream, but it was real and we were living it.

Robyn and I made a well-deserved celebratory toast to the fact that we pulled off our looks in such a last-minute effort and that we were there to experience this adventure together. We were also quite proud that our gloves matched perfectly, even to our red and white wines!

Wherever Robyn and I go, a story always follows. We should have anticipated as much when we ran into Salieri himself on a horse as we were walking to the ladies room! Salieri was quite the charmer as he posed for our impromptu photo, before taking the stage for another performance at the Viennese Ball.

I had the absolute pleasure of sitting next to Amy Shoremount-Obra, an incredibly talented, famous opera singer. Amy made her much anticipated Metropolitan Opera debut in October 2014, and has been performing there ever since. She currently performs at the David Geffen Hall in Lincoln Center as the Soprano Soloist in Verdi’s Requiem with the National Chorale. It was such an honor to have chance to break bread with Amy at the same table. We chatted about our upbringing in New Jersey, and her exciting upcoming next performance at the Viennese Ball. 

Amy, and performers Jeffrey Mattsey and Keith Miller, went to take the stage for their next performance called “Salieri” Recalls the Genius and Legend. I’ll never forget how amazing it was to see Salieri riding a horse in the grand ballroom at the Waldorf!

Speaking of memorable performances, I’ll always remember how incredible it was to hear Amy Shoremount-Obra sing. We could only blink in awe as she belted out “D’Oreste d’Ajace” from Mozart’s “Idomeneo”. 

After the show, Robyn and I had the absolute pleasure of taking a photo with our new friends, Amy and Jeff, after their stellar performance.

As a foodie, I must mention the amazing dinner menu at the Viennese Ball which, started with the above braised jumbo prawns, balsamic marinated grilled vegetable napoleon with Israeli cous cous and topped with a grissini breadstick.

The main entrée included grilled tournedo of beef, black truffle potato boulangere with jumbo peeled asparagus and red wine sauche.

Dessert included “Mozart’s signature box” with Nusskutchen Concerto, praline cream and chocolate cream, vanilla cream diplomat and roasted peach and raspberries. 

After dinner, we took our red tickets and headed to the Tanz Bar for the after parties held in the Astor Salon, Jade Salon and Basildon Salon. The Astor Salon included DJ Victor Lesser and a buffet supper with goulash soup. The Jade Salon included a performance from The VOB Supper Club: Cole Rumbough and the Joe Alterman Quartet. It also had a buffet with goulash soup. Finally, the Basidon Salon held a Vienna Coffee House with desserts.

Guests were treated to gift bags as we walked to the after parties. 

We started our after party evening at the brilliant Astor Salon, where we danced the night away to fun music by DJ Victor Lesser.

I couldn’t help but to indulge in more Viennese delicacies to refuel during a 2am dance break!

After spending some time at the Astor Salon, we headed to explore the two other after party rooms, starting with the Jade Salon. The theme in this room was a bit more calm, as guests enjoyed more relaxed music.

Finally, I went to explore the Basildon Salon, the last after party room filled with the finest Viennese coffee and every possible dessert you can imagine.

Of course, I had to try the fondue, which was quite a fete as I tried my hardest not to stain my white opera gloves! 

Thank you so much to Marcie Rudell from and Matt Rich from for giving me the incredible opportunity to cover every magical moment of the 61st Viennese Opera Ball. 

It was one of the best experiences, and will certainly be one of my fondest life memories filled with royals, dignitaries, debutantes, ball gowns, diamonds, men in top hats, and of course Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!

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