14 September 2011
You don't have to be an ordained Ambassador to assume the role of one. In Washington, a city full of top ranking diplomats, one woman stands out in her efforts to bring cultures together. Susan Lehrman is not an officially ordained Ambassador, but her behind-the-scenes efforts to bring peoples together -- almost always at her own expense -- maker her one of the most sought-after individuals to host Washington's most celebrated Galas and philanthropic events.
This exclusive interview was originally published in the Fall 2011 print issue of The Diplomatic Courier.
The Diplomatic Courier: Why is it better to give than to receive?
Susan Lehrman: Regardless of what’s ‘better’, I can say that for me, it’s very rewarding to give my time and support to philanthropies that I truly believe in and enjoy.
DC: How long have you supported the Opera Ball? Tell us a little about your work with the organization.
SL: I started attending the Washington National’s Opera in the 1990s, then I joined the board, and I just found myself getting more and more involved. When the Opera Ball chairmanship opened up in 2008, I jumped right in. It’s an amazing opportunity to combine not only my love of opera and the joy I take in entertaining, but to engage in cultural diplomacy. One of my goals for these occasions is to help increase the awareness of opera as a great diplomatic tool. Opera is beloved internationally, and brings people together to find common bonds through common culture.
DC: Why did you choose this organization above others?
SL: I was fortunate that my parents exposed me to the arts from a young age; I’ve always loved music and especially vocal music, so the connection to opera was a natural one. Specific to the Washington National Opera, I think that every great nation should have a great opera house in their capital, and I wanted to help with the WNO in our beautiful city.
DC: What has been the most enjoyable part of chairing the Opera Ball?
SL: I think that my favorite aspect of Chairing the Opera Ball is that I can help bring together different groups of Washingtonians, diplomats, politicians, business leaders etc., and play a small part in the new and in some cases, long-lasting business and social relationships that can begin at these events. I get great satisfaction when that occurs.
DC: You have chaired numerous successful events: what do you consider to be your greatest event to date?
SL: It would be impossible to choose just one event – I’ve loved them all.
DC: What causes you the most stress when chairing a fundraiser?
SL: Probably the weather! But fundamentally, the stress of chairing the Opera Ball is ‘good’ stress to me. I enjoy the entire process, particularly when I’m working with the Opera Ball team, which always includes the host Embassy staff, to find solutions together for the myriad of issues that invariably crop up.
DC: What’s the best advice you’ve received about chairing a fundraiser?
SL: There are two great pieces of advice that I follow and share whenever asked; the first is to choose a charity that is close to your heart. These events are very time consuming, and take a lot of effort and consideration, and if you’re not fully committed to the idea behind the effort, it might not be a worthwhile experience for you. Second, when event time comes, enjoy every minute of it!
DC: What role does the Diplomatic Community play in the events you chair?
SL: The Diplomatic community has an integral role in the Opera Ball; numerous embassies and their Ambassadors participate with us to make the Ball the unique event that it is. Opera Ball guests always begin the evening by dining at an embassy or Ambassadorial residence for a lavish dinner experience with an Ambassador, the Ambassador’s spouse, and several Washington notables among the Ambassador’s guests. The Diplomatic community has been very generous and gracious to the Opera Ball in this regard. Once dinner is over, guests gather at one host embassy to continue the evening’s revelry. That host embassy, and its’ cultures and traditions, play a paramount role in dictating the themes and direction for the Opera Ball gathering. As a result, the Ball offers a great opportunity for the diplomatic community, and all of Washington society, including attendees from our city’s academic, artistic, political, social and business communities, to experience and enjoy the host embassy’s cultural uniqueness.
DC: Why is it important for the Diplomatic Community to interact with Washington’s society? How does the Opera factor in these relationships?
SL: I believe that the Opera Ball offers an important opportunity for the diplomatic community and Washington society to come together in a relaxed and fun atmosphere, which is an unusual occasion in this city. I am always hopeful that the Ball will serve as an important conduit not only for greater cultural awareness, but also for new social and business relationships between all of the attendees that evening.
DC: What are your future goals for the Opera Ball? Do you have any insights on the next Opera Ball?
SL: Whether I chair the Opera Ball or simply work behind the scenes, my overarching goal is to continue to be as involved and helpful as I can be in the philanthropies I care about, like the Washington National Opera, for years to come.
DC: What other events and organizations do you work with? Tell us a little bit about your work.
SL: Aside from my full-time real-estate business, this year I helped launch a new program at American University called the Initiative for Russian Culture. This initiative will help promote greater cultural understanding and interest in all things Russian among local university students and the DC community through film screenings, panel discussions, academic conferences, new course offerings and enhanced cultural exchange programs. I believe this Initiative will foster real connections with our students and our cultures, and I'm very excited about this new endeavor. I’ve also helped arrange an exchange between our Washington National Opera’s (WNO) young artists through WNO Artistic Director Christina Schelpelman. Some of our talented young artists will be going to Moscow in November, and the Bolshoi has already sent some of their talented young artists to DC this past April. I am sponsoring the outstanding Youth Orchestra of the Americas on their upcoming 6 week tour in China in December, and have been a sponsor of the Kids Euro Festival for the past four years. This wonderful cultural festival is free to all of the children and families in the DC area and runs each year for 6 weeks.