After three years of leadership turnover and a six-month international search, Fort Worth Opera has appointed Afton Battle its new general director. An historic hire, Battle is the first woman and Black individual to lead FWO in its 75-year history.
Battle, a native Texan, holds degrees from the University of Houston and Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. Her career has included opera singing, arts administration, development, and consulting for such prestigious institutions as the National Black Theatre, the African American Policy Forum, New York Theatre Workshop, National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, and The Joffrey Ballet.
As Fort Worth Opera general director, she will oversee artistic operations in conjunction with Joe Illick, who remains artistic director.
Battle says her life experience will inform her goals and guidance of Fort Worth Opera — and that includes meeting this particular moment in American culture.
“The core values that are rooted in my very being will guide me as I lead FWO in eradicating inequities, celebrating our differences in diversity, and promoting racial justice by offering thought-provoking opera that transcends the boundaries of language and cultural backgrounds," Battle says in a release. "By incubating and nourishing the talent of singers, composers, librettists, and directors of all races, orientations, and ethnicities, we will create an organization where diversity and inclusivity are woven into our DNA."
Past meets future
Fort Worth Opera has built a reputation for pushing the boundaries both on stage and behind the scenes, fiercely championing those who are advancing the art form into the future. In addition to high-profile commissions like 2016's JFK, the company committed to works of contemporary and American composers through its Opera Unbound and Opera of the Americas initiatives and to Spanish-language productions in its Noches de Opera initiative. Its unique Frontiers showcase gives voice to unpublished new compositions each year.
Upcoming seasons will feature an even greater variety of works that "celebrate Fort Worth’s rich cultural mosaic," the company says. And, in a break from a 13-year tradition, FWO will move away from a festival format and into a year-round season, Battle says.
"I have been chosen to steer this amazing company, and together we will focus on expanding our reach and engagement into communities that have been historically marginalized (Black, Latinx, Asian, Indigenous, LGBTQIA) by forging relationships with community leaders and stakeholders," Battle says. "Through innovative programming and rich partnerships, we will commune a vibrant network of engaged young professionals, build back the trust and support of the community who hold us up, and gradually move away from the festival season back to a year-round format."
Years of challenges
The festival format put FWO at a disadvantage last spring, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel its 2020 festival — essentially its entire season. It was a crushing blow that followed a series of financial and leadership challenges in recent years.
In January, general director Tuomas Hiltunen resigned after two seasons. Hiltunen had been appointed in July 2017, five months after longtime FWO general director Darren Woods — a beloved figure in the Fort Worth arts community — was suddenly fired. Also in 2017, FWO created a new artistic advisory council and tapped international opera star Plácido Domingo to lead it, but it never materialized and Domingo became embroiled in a sex abuse scandal.
Through cost-cutting measures like scrapping a huge Wagner production and fundraising efforts at glamorous galas for loyal supporters, FWO has worked to secure financial footing. They're hoping Battle's recent success spearheading significant corporate campaigns will propel them into the future.
“Opera, and all the performing arts, face great challenges in this time when we cannot gather in the theater," says Fort Worth Opera board chair Nelson E. Claytor, "but with Afton’s leadership, I am confident that we will meet those challenges, become even more closely connected to our community, and come out of this difficult time stronger than ever.”
Started in 1946, FWO touts itself as the oldest continually performing opera company in Texas, and one of the 14 oldest opera companies in the United States. In lieu of live performances this year, the company launched its 75th anniversary last month with a virtual initiative called Green Room.
Battle acknowledges that emerging from the pandemic setbacks won't be easy, but she is ready to steer the ship into calmer waters.
“The work ahead of us will undoubtedly be difficult, but I am confident in the abilities of this incredible staff and board to inspire this great city," she says. “Fort Worth Opera is in an incredibly unique position — one of rebirth, evolution, and change."