By Louis Marroquin
Photo by Ron Jenkins
She grew up in her father’s Amarillo church and saw her first opera at age 17. As Fort Worth Opera’s new general director, Afton Battle looks forward to broadening the company’s audience and celebrating its 75th year.
Afton Battle was sheltering in place in her apartment in Chicago last August when she got the call. Would she be interested in becoming the general director of Fort Worth Opera? The timing couldn’t have been better.
She had paused briefly on a career path that had led her to study voice performance at the University of Houston and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey; propelled her to the Metropolitan Opera stage; and, more recently, veered her into administration and development roles with the Joffrey Ballet and New York Theatre Workshop. Battle describes the offer to head the Fort Worth company as “unexpected and almost cerebral.”
The fact that she is FWO’s first female — and first Black — general director makes her appointment heady stuff. “It’s a tremendous honor and the epitome of breaking the glass ceiling,” she says. “Women in the opera industry are few to begin with. But we not only have the ceiling of being a woman, we have the ceiling of being Black. This breaks through both of those.”
Now Battle, who grew up singing in the Baptist church her father pastored in Amarillo, is tasked with breathing new life into a 75-year-old opera company that is trying to shake off a few volatile years that saw it parting ways with not one but two general directors (Battle is the eighth). And she’s stepping up in a pandemic-altered world that has illuminated the need for innovation and creativity in the live performing arts.
Battle has never been one to shy away from a challenge. It was at the age of 17 — when she saw La Traviata — that she was bitten by the opera bug. It was a relatively late age, she says, for getting started in music. She had to play catch-up learning the basic foundations of reading music and playing the piano. Then, when the recession hit in 2008, her young voice was not yet ready for the kinds of singing roles that would get her to the country’s mainstages. She struggled to find work.
“I didn’t and don’t come from a family in which I couldn’t have a job to support myself,” she says, “so I turned my focus toward administration, thinking it would be temporary. But then I realized I rather enjoyed it.”
Talking over Zoom for this interview, Battle exudes warmth, humor, eloquence and not an ounce of pretense. “I am authentically, unapologetically Afton. You can go to my social media and know exactly what I stand for. I don’t hide it, and I don’t apologize for it.”
One thing she stands for is righting the wrongs the opera industry may have brought on itself. “For far too long,” she says, “the industry of opera just did not reach into the community as it should. It’s an elitist art form that expects people to come to it. I’m looking to change that for Fort Worth Opera, where we go to our community and prove to them that we see them, we recognize them, and we want to be a part of their lives in an authentic and genuine way.
By forging relationships with key civic leaders and stakeholders, organizations such as the Tarrant Area Food Bank and YMCA, as well as schools across town, Battle plans to make opera more accessible and relevant to a broader audience.
“We have a great program, Noches de Ópera, that engages the Hispanic community, but we weren’t doing anything for the Black and African American community, or the LGBTQIA+ community, or the Asian community. We cannot be selective with whom we build bridges. I want us to be known as the people’s company throughout the city.”
That bridge-building started in October with the launch of FWOGO, the company’s mobile opera truck, which takes music to the streets, entertaining people in their own communities and developing awareness of Fort Worth Opera.
A group of resident artists presents free 15- to 20-minute pop-up concerts at outdoor venues across town, Battle says, “as a way to bring healing to our city in a time of turbulence — not only COVID turbulence but also social and racial turbulence. That’s the beauty of music; it’s a unifier.”
Planning FWO’s milestone season has been anything but easy. Battle says the company is relying on science and medical professionals to lead the way on protocols for when or how it will reopen in 2021.
“But whether we are in Bass Hall or on an opera truck, we are looking forward to celebrating our 75th anniversary with programming that is reflective of the rich history of this company. It may not look traditional, but it will be engaging.” Might a return to performance by Battle be in the cards? “Well, listen, I’m free talent,” she jokes. “But to be able to share my passion and gift for this wonderful art form with the community in some way — that would be a great honor.”
Louis Marroquin, an arts enthusiast, is a lifelong resident of North Texas. He, too, misses live performances.
Back to Texas
Raised in Amarillo, Afton Battle attended college in Texas before heading to the Northeast to continue her education and pursue her music career dreams. Although her parents moved to Fort Worth about 15 years ago, her trips home have been limited to brief holiday visits. Now that she’s back in Texas full time, what is she liking most?
The weather I truly love the temperate climate during the winter months, as opposed to the brutal cold of Chicago.
The hospitality Having lived in the Northeast and in the Midwest for so long, I had forgotten how hospitable people are in Texas.
The Cultural District Fort Worth’s museums are great. The Kimbell has some wonderful permanent pieces that I love.
The ambiance I find my own little walking places in Fort Worth, like by the Trinity River. Watching the sunset draws calmness and illuminates the beauty for me.