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When Opera Parallèle was just beginning, its founder, conductor and artistic director Nicole Paiement would host lively potluck dinners for board members and staff around her San Francisco dining table. Warm and song-filled, these early celebrations planted the seeds of what has grown into a million-dollar contemporary opera organization about to begin its seventh season. On Wednesday, Oct. 11, above the construction zones of Van Ness Avenue, Opera Parallèle hosted yet another warm and song-filled dinner. This one, however, was a gala fundraiser in San Francisco’s stately Green Room, with its chandeliers and gold-leaf columns, flowing wine and open checkbooks.

“We’ve come a long way,” said board member Judy Gough.

The night’s gala theme, “Make Our Garden Grow,” was an homage to the 100th birthday of Leonard Bernstein, whom Opera Parallèle plans to honor with a February production of his “Trouble in Tahiti.” The unique musical selection is par for the Opera Parallèle course. The organization is passionately focused on developing and performing contemporary opera, stunning in their staging and orchestration and designed to challenge the medium’s time-worn traditions. Opera Parallèle, is, to be direct, cool.

“Opera is about storytelling,” explained Paiement. “If you have a relevant story to tell and you tell it in the medium of today, people will relate.”

Paiement stood on the balcony of the Green Room alongside American Conservatory Theater’s outgoing Artistic Director, Carey Perloff. To look at the two friends — petite, casually confident and slightly mischievous — it might be easy to mistake the women for anything other than artistic powerhouses, but that’s exactly what they are. Perloff, a trailblazer in the theater world, has generously served on Opera Parallèle’s advisory council since its inception and, as such, was the gala’s special honoree.

“She’s a great model of women in art,” said Paiement of Perloff. Paiement then formed her hands into fists and raised them above her head. “She’s a real force!”

Paiement is all too familiar with operating within the confines of a male-dominated industry. The French Canadian was one of the first women to graduate with a doctorate in conducting from the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., and holds an impressive resume.
“This is the most male endeavor,” explained Perloff of Paiement’s bold journey into the conducting world. “I think it’s because you wave a stick around — and we all know what that means.”

Humor is clearly vital to the camaraderie of Paiement and her team, and it is likely one of the necessary elements to building an opera company from the ground up. It was clear that Wednesday night’s Opera Parallèle crowd was more a family than a ballroom of icy philanthropists. While the night’s goal was serious fundraising, the vibe of the crowd was tangibly intimate. In fact, several ticket buyers were unable to attend, having been evacuated from their homes due to the fires raging in the North Bay. The incalculable loss caused by the fires were acknowledged with solemnity and solidarity. Still, the show went on.

Formally set tables covered in white and green floral arrangements sat amid twinkling stemware and gourmet entrees. Opera Parallèle staffers wore custom-made fascinators covered in butterflies, a nod to the night’s garden theme. Executive Director Debbie Chinn ran the fundraising auction herself, eagerly shouting bids as donors raised their paddles. Laughter floated through the Green Room just as freely as music from the night’s handful of performances.

Some 180 guests were treated to five Bernstein pieces, a haunting number called “Winter Rose” from an opera by frequent Opera Parallèle collaborator Jake Heggie, and two charming performances from composer Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince.” The latter opera will be part of an Opera Parallèle production coming to Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater in December.

“The Little Prince,” based on the famous children’s book by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, may become a regular December offering from Opera Parallèle.

“Right now there’s not a holiday opera event,” lamented Paiement. “We are trying to establish a holiday tradition.”

“We would like that to become our ‘Nutcracker’,” explained Opera Parallèle creative director Brian Staufenbiel.

Erin Enriquez, one of the 10-year-old girls who will star in the coming production, performed twice at the gala, entirely unfazed by the adult crowd gazing at her. Enriquez is a member of the San Francisco Girls’ Chorus, an organization that will partner with Opera Parallèle for the “Little Prince” production. Featuring girls in the traditionally male role of the prince, Opera Parallèle’s version will add a feminist element, just the kind of timely twist that’s become a hallmark of the organization.

The evening ended with a total haul of $185,725 — including a $10,000 proxy gift from philanthropist and composer Gordon Getty. And perhaps just as importantly, the evening ended with song. Singers, including select board members and Staufenbiel himself, rose from their seats and moved toward the front of the ballroom, each belting a flawless rendition of “Make Our Garden Grow” from Bernstein’s “Candide.” In the back of the ballroom, with the backdrop of City Hall glowing behind her, Paiement conducted her opera, her arms high and her chin raised. The cozy scene of those potluck dinners may have changed, but her passion for Opera Parallèle remains as strong as ever. In fact, it grows.

Beth Spotswood is a Bay Area writer and weekly Datebook columnist.