"When Diana entered the box, radiant in a magnificent long white dress with a matching bolero jacket covered in jewels, a gasp went up from the crowd," Karen Brooks Hopkins, President Emerita of BAM, tells PEOPLE

By People Staff
November 16, 2020 09:55 AM
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Karen Brooks Hopkins, President Emerita of BAM, hosted real-life royalty when Princess Diana attended the BAM Opera gala during her 1989 visit to New York. The special evening is recreated in the fourth season of The Crown, which premiered Nov. 15. Here, Karen recalls her personal account of "a night to remember."

One of the most remarkable events in my long (36-year) career at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, America’s oldest performing arts center, was the 1989 Royal Gala. Her Royal Highness Diana, Princess of Wales, was our special guest — and it was truly a night to remember.

It all began when we decided to launch an opera program.

We decided to launch BAM Opera with a production of Verdi’s Falstaff performed by the Welsh National Opera. Since I had no clue how we would pay for it, I suggested (sarcastically) to the Welsh National Opera’s Managing Director, Brian McMaster, that maybe Queen Elizabeth would come for a gala. Brian dismissed my sarcasm and said, "Perhaps we can do better. HRH Princess Diana is the patron of the Welsh National Opera. I will ask her to come." This would be the answer to our prayers and, miraculously, a few weeks later we had our guest of honor. Yes, the Princess of Wales would join us and make her first official visit to New York!

Princess Diana; Emma Corrin in The Crown
| Credit: Tim Graham Photo Library via Getty; SplashNews.com
Princess Diana
| Credit: Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty
Princess Diana
| Credit: Library via Getty

I can tell you that the rollout of a royal visit is meticulous. She is not just a person but an industry, and every moment is designed to maximize the fantasy, beauty and mystery of royalty — and our Diana was the quintessential princess. She was tall, young, graceful, beautiful and a real professional.

Our adventure began with a trip to Kensington Palace to meet Anne Beckwith Smith, Princess Diana's lady-in-waiting. Somehow, British Air had lost my luggage and I "had to" indulge in a big shopping spree to be ready to meet her team. Oh well, somehow I managed to buy fabulous clothes and outfit myself appropriately.

At the Palace, we (our Gala Chair, Beth Rudin DeWoody; our Development Director, Denis Azaro, and I) were told that in a few months there would be a "Reccy." This is a reconnaissance tour, which includes a team of 20 security, logistics and protocol professionals who would prep Princess Diana's visit to Brooklyn. We had about 50 BAM staffers ready to meet them, to walk every inch of our building to make sure each moment of the gala was perfect.

Princess Diana
| Credit: Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

The big night finally arrived: February 2, 1989. Two thousand guests in black tie packed the Opera House. Princess Diana's royal box was draped with flowers and greenery. The Welsh National Opera’s orchestra was instructed to play both the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Save the Queen." When the conductor lifted his baton, all 2,000 guests stood at attention and, of course since it was New York, everyone was wearing black – the men were in black tie and many women wore black designer gowns. So when Diana entered the box, radiant in a magnificent long white dress with a matching bolero jacket covered in jewels, a gasp went up from the crowd. She was — in a word — perfection!

Princess Diana
| Credit: PA Images via Getty

It was an extraordinary night. There were two intermissions where I took charge of presenting her to our guests. Everyone in New York was there – celebrities, politicians and yes, even Donald and Ivana Trump! The security team was massive – NYPD, Scotland Yard, Her Majesty’s own private force and the FBI. These guys don’t fool around. In fact, the decor for one of the receptions consisted of 500 balloons; however, they kept popping all afternoon as we were setting up and the security guys went crazy. Two hours before the gala, 500 balloons made their exit!

Then came the faux pas of the evening. Ed Koch, mayor of New York, greeted Princess Diana from the stage wearing a cheap suit, no black tie for him. He had a Democratic Party fundraiser at the Waldorf and BAM was just the first stop on his schedule. Oh well — New York is just New York.

Princess Diana
| Credit: Michael Norcia/New York Post Archives /(c) NYP Holdings, Inc. via Getty

Following the opera, we organized a motorcade that took the entire gala crowd to the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center in Manhattan for dinner.

When Diana arrived at the venue, Brian McMaster of the Welsh National Opera and BAM’s Executive Producer, Harvey Lichtenstein, each took their place beside her and escorted the princess down the magnificent marble stairs to the dinner area. This was the "money shot." Hundreds of photographers took pictures, and along the route, she stopped twice to receive flowers from children who were carefully selected for the honor of giving bouquets to the princess. Like I said, every moment was carefully and definitively planned.

Princess Diana
| Credit: Richard Corkery/NY Daily News Archive via Getty

PEOPLE magazine was our sponsor (after all, Diana appeared on their cover at least 20 times), and we also had amazing support from the Welsh Development Agency and the revenue from the $1,000 gala tickets purchased by the guests. It was the first time in BAM’s history that $1 million was raised in a single night.

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The dinner was a brilliant success. Diana was charming and lovely. She truly was a real princess. The next day every media outlet in the city and beyond ran cover stories...and the event became a BAM and New York legend.

As for the opera, we could barely remember that it was the reason for all the hoopla. The real drama was, of course, Her Royal Highness' visit to New York.