In Fort Worth, one of the very few Black female opera company directors, is bringing 'outsiders' in
Afton Battle is one of the very few Black female general directors of an opera company in North America. She was hired in late 2020 to transform the company — in the middle of a pandemic.
When Afton Battle took over Fort Worth Opera in late 2020, she faced a daunting challenge: transform the company — during a pandemic that had shut down other performing arts groups. And it's the first time Battle has even run an opera company.
But her career prospects aren't all that hang in the balance. There's the future of Fort Worth Opera itself — the company had been on shaky ground financially.
And there are wider implications for the classical music world.
"I am currently the only Black female general director of an opera company in North America," she said. "So there are a lot of eyes on me and on Fort Worth Opera."
[Update: Dr. Sharon Willis, the founder and director of the Americolor Opera Alliance in Atlanta, Georgia, is also a Black female director of a U. S. opera company.]
They're watching not simply because she's a breakthrough hire; it's what she's trying to do with the company.
Fort Worth Opera's most recent production was Zorro; it sold out all three shows at the Rose Marine Theater in January. As a stage show, Zorro had only two musicians and no chorus.
But courtesy of fight director Jeff Colangelo, there were the swordfights and whipcracking that are pretty much required for any story of a 19th-century, masked, avenger-hero.
In fact, Ben Huegel drove from Denton with his friend Cesar Aranda to watch their first opera — that is, to watch Zorro. Ben's a fan of the Zorro of the pulp novels and the movies.
"Oh yeah, he's a lot of fun, the swashbuckling, action-hero type thing," Huegel said. "Watching that in live theater — where it feels a little more tangible, a little less superficial — was very attractive to me."
As young, Latino males who'd never seen an opera before, Huegel and Aranda are a prized audience for an opera company like Fort Worth's. Battle has staked her leadership on reorienting it to embrace communities and artists — Black, Latino, Asian — that have traditionally been marginalized or mostly ignored in the opera world.
"I don't think a season should pass, ever," Battle said, "that we don't intentionally program a work or works by composers and artists and creatives who represent the global majority."
To be fair, composer-lyricist Hector Armienta's Zorro had been in the works as a premiere from Fort Worth Opera before Battle took over. But last year's gala A Night of Black Excellence: Past, Present and Future — which combined poets, opera singers and an African drum and dance ensemble — that was her idea.
And it clicked. All 900 seats in the auditorium at IM Terrell Academy sold out. This year's gala is on Sunday — dedicated to Juneteenth activist Opal Lee.
Battle was not surprised by the enthusiastic response.
"We as a nation," she said, "should never underestimate the power of the Black community. We should never underestimate the financial strength of the Black community."
Fort Worth's population is nearly 19% African-American. The national average is 12%. So reaching out to what has mostly been an untapped resource for opera in Fort Worth makes sense. And when it comes to that other audience to reach — the Latino community — Fort Worth opera has certainly presented "mariachi operas," Spanish-language operas, often for schoolchildren.
But Joe Illick, the company's longtime music director and now its artistic director, says "outreach" is no longer the way the company treats such efforts.
He said, it's "like we sat in the center of the body of work that almost all opera companies do — focusing on Verdi and Puccini and branching out to Bizet and Mozart and maybe some contemporary pieces."
And the Spanish-language shows were presented as though their audiences were outside the opera audience.
"So now we're really trying to say, 'Let's not have that be the centerpiece from which we do outreach. Let's already have what used to be outreach be in the center."
This hardly means Fort Worth Opera is giving up on Mozart and Verdi and Wagner. They're all simply in the same mix with Zorro. In April, the company will present Verdi's La Traviata at Bass Hall. For comparison's sake: Bass Hall has more than 2,000 seats. The Rose Marine has around 250. So in its complete run, Zorro was seen by approximately 750 people — total. La Traviata could be seen by more than 4,000.
But productions like Zorro, staged at smaller theaters like the Rose Marine are now deemed 'mainstage' shows by Fort Worth Opera — not just side efforts. Putting opera productions and concerts into smaller venues like Downtown Cowtown at the Isis makes them accessible to people who never go to Bass Hall, Battle said. And their smaller scale makes financial sense.
"The company has turned itself around," Battle said, "to right-size itself and produce within its means."
In all this, Battle said, COVID actually provided a breather. Not having to produce a full season, she had time to create a drive-in opera series as a stop-gap measure — and time to work on transforming the company's focus, its finances, its audience.
For the immediate future, Battle would not name names or titles for operas she's planning to present by Black or Latino composers. Nor any operas she hopes to stage in smaller theaters around town. There are still too many moving pieces.
"What I can tell you," she said, "is when we do announce our season and you look on the brochure, it will look like an ad for United Colors of Benetton."
Battle happens to be from Texas — she was born in Lubbock, grew up in El Paso, her parents moved to Fort Worth before Afton arrived in 2020.
"I grew up in a household and a community," she said, "where we were taught to succeed by any means necessary."
So failure, she added, is not an option.
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