A six-month search for a general director and new artistic visions is over. Today, Fort Worth Opera leadership announced Afton Battle as the opera company’s head director. Battle replaces Tuomas Hiltunen, who served for two years after Darren Woods was dismissed by the opera’s board of directors.
Battle, a Black woman and native Texan, enters an American opera landscape that continues to be dominated by white male leadership. Her professional experience, both as a singer, development director, and highly regarded arts administrator in Chicago and New York City, positions Battle to grow FWO artistically and organizationally.
Battle said that her top goals are to grow the opera company’s young artist program and to make Fort Worth’s opera company the “people’s opera company.”
“I am really looking forward to building a robust young artist program,” she said. “I want our resident program to be on any young singer’s Top 5 picks. When I was a resident at Florida Grand Opera, we sang all over Florida. We had weekly lessons and coachings. We were performing recitals and concerts in various venues while learning new repertoire. Also, I want to diversify our footprint. That means building an audience through community engagement in communities that have been historically marginalized. The ethnic makeup of this area is so rich and vibrant. I want us to make sure those connections are genuinely felt from the inside out.”
Hiring practices, while remaining merit-based, need to be broad enough to include candidates from the Black, LatinX, LGBTQ, and Asian communities, among others, she added.
FWO is not alone in its recent efforts to reflect and attract minority communities. The Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra recently included Black composers in the America Strong concert, which aired two months ago.
“Sometimes, what is not taken into consideration [when diversifying programming] is the authenticity of those efforts,” Battle said. “Anyone can mount a Porgy and Bess production. If you are not engaging Black singers for things other than Porgy, the authenticity of your relationship with Black performing artists becomes slightly questionable. That’s why I am very adamant about how we build authentic strong-legged relationships with the Black community and others. We should celebrate the heritage of our Hispanic community but not only during Hispanic Heritage Month.”
For the time being, FWO’s programming remains online-only. The opera company has launched a wide range of educational- and performance-based initiatives that can be viewed on Instagram (@fortworthopera) and other social media outlets. Battle’s long-term programming goals will blend established repertoire with new and commissioned works, she said. Under Wood’s tenure, FWO gained national renown for commissioning ambitious large-scale operas. Battle said Fort Worth’s resident opera company will continue to be an “incubator” for new works.
The too-frequent killing of unarmed Black men and women by white police officers has placed social justice at the fore of public and private conversations across the country. Opera has a role to play in addressing issues like institutionalized racism, Battle said.
“Opera is incredibly important in these discussions,” she said. “For many years and decades, our art form has been the perpetrator of systemic racism. It is a cycle that has unfortunately continued. We now have an opportunity to look at how we can adjust these things. Is our stage reflective of the communities that we serve? Do donors and audience members see themselves on or off stage? Opera plays a huge role in addressing the inequities of this time. We have to do more than we think we need to do in order to reverse this pool of descrimination that we have been swimming in. That starts with going into the community, engaging with them in an authentic way, cultivating relationships with people who look like me or my parents, and building an audience that is truly reflective of North Texas.”