Afton Battle steps down as Fort Worth Opera general director after 2 years
Fort Worth Opera general and artistic director Afton Battle has resigned after leading the company through two challenging, post-pandemic years; her last day with the company will be November 23.
"It is with profound sadness I am sharing publicly that after two impactful — and in many ways life-changing — years with Fort Worth Opera, I announce my formal resignation as general and artistic director," she wrote in an email to colleagues on Monday, October 24.
Fort Worth Opera followed with a public announcement on October 25. In a statement, Hayne Shumate, acting FWO board chair, said, "I am deeply grateful to Afton for her leadership and vision during her time with Fort Worth Opera. The Opera remains committed to providing the Fort Worth community with exceptional performing and operatic art experiences that are accessible, inclusive and equitable across all audiences."
FWO leaders did not respond to questions regarding a search for Battle's replacement or who will serve as acting general director when she leaves.
Professional and personal decision
Battle says she made her intention to resign known to the FWO board of directors in July 2022 and remained on to ensure FWO's 76th season would have a successful opening this month.
In an interview with CultureMap on October 24, Battle says her decision to step down was both professional and personal.
"I feel like I’ve done my best and all that I can do at Fort Worth Opera. I feel I've given the company and community two really great years in the midst of really challenging times," she says. "I started this job in middle of Covid when we had no idea what we were doing next. We were able to persevere and have a beautiful season for 75th, and we're looking forward to 76th. I feel it is time for the company to build on that momentum with someone else who has, really, the understanding and acumen for the community as a whole.
"And also," she continues, "I have big hopes and big dreams, and I’m just getting started. Fort Worth Opera has been a place where I’ve ben able to build my own skillset and create my own portfolio of pieces and work I've been able to do. And I think it is time for me professionally to spread my wings and go a little bit higher."
Battle was quick to praise the "diligent and tireless efforts" of the Fort Worth Opera staff over the past two years.
"We are a staff of 13 pulling off the world of a staff of 300," she says. "Every single person on that staff is talented, kind, believes in the mission, the core values of the institution, they believe in the direction of the Fort Worth Opera is going, and I would not have been able to do half of what we’ve been able to accomplish without them."
"The People's Company"
A historic hire for FWO in September 2020, Battle was the first woman and Black individual to lead FWO in its then-75-year history. At the time, she pledged to make FWO "The People's Company," prioritizing efforts to reach new and traditionally underserved audiences throughout Fort Worth. She says she's particularly proud of creating an annual production of “A Night of Black Excellence."
Battle counts as other successes: the return of Noches de Ópera, FWO’s Hispanic Heritage engagement initiative, the development of FWOGO! to provide performance opportunities outside of Fort Worth, the expansion of Children’s Opera Theatre to serve more than 30,000 students across North Texas, the development of an online school curriculum, and the evolution of the Hattie Mae Lesley Resident Artist program to include a new relationship with TCU’s School of Music beginning fall 2022.
She says she is proud to have built a company that is "truly reflective" of the Fort Worth community.
"I do believe that with the staff I have here, we have been able to create something beautiful and impactful, special and important at the opera, "she says. "We have been able to change the way people engage in opera, view what opera is, and change the mindset of the community - the mindset that people had in past, which is that opera was elitist."
Navigating post-pandemic challenges
One of FWO's most significant changes during Battle's tenure was a shift away from a festival format and into a year-round season. The festival format had put FWO at a disadvantage in spring of 2020, when the coronavirus pandemic forced the company to cancel its 2020 festival — essentially its entire season — and pivot quickly and creatively to virtual offerings.
It was a crushing blow that followed a series of financial and leadership challenges in preceding years. General director Tuomas Hiltunen had just resigned after two seasons, in January 2020. 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.
The company was also reportedly carrying over years of debt. Through cost-cutting measures like scrapping a huge Wagner production and fundraising efforts at glamorous galas for loyal supporters, FWO worked to secure financial footing.
Artistically, under Battle, FWO has mostly moved away from expensive, full-scale productions to smaller chamber-style works and opera concerts. Significantly, no full-scale opera productions at Bass Hall are scheduled on the FWO's 2022-2023 season. (FWO is still listed as a resident company of Bass Hall.)
Longtime FWO artistic director Joe Illick left in June 2022, and Battle became both general and artistic director.
Battle is up front about the artistic challenges that have gone hand-in-hand with financial challenges in recent years — and continue now.
"The ramifications and the effects of Covid are ... much longer and further-reaching than any of of could have anticipated in march 2020," Battle says. "And then looking at a looming recession and inflation, it’s costing us three times as more to live our lives, and we are feeling it in all aspects of life.
"People have to make decisions that are best for their family and for them financially. Sometimes things that are luxurious start to become less and less a part of their lives. Unfortunately, sometimes those choices are coming down to season tickets to the opera or stockpiling for when a rainy day is going to come. Those are really real things that every performing arts institute is dealing with."
She stands by FWO's decision to scale back from traditional mainstage productions to be fiscally responsible during her tenure — even if it disappointed some longtime opera patrons.
"We have productions every month starting in October and two in November. Are they small-scale? Absolutely. Are they world-class art? Absolutely," Battle says. "There is a give-and-take that has to happen, especially when you are dealing with the looming long-term and far-reaching effects of Covid and the financial situation we find ourselves in as institutions. We have productions every month. They are aren't in Bass Hall — not because we don’t want to — but this year we're more mindful of ways to spend money.
"To produce great art, you have to be able to finance great art."
In a statement, acting FWO board chair Shumate praises Battle's leadership through the last challenging two years.
"The pandemic created enormous challenges for companies producing live art," Shumate says. "Afton’s dedication, along with the dedication of the talented FWO staff, saw us through these difficult seasons and on behalf of the board, staff and community. We were saddened when Afton shared her intent to leave FWO, but on behalf of the board, staff and community, we wish her the best.”
As for Battle's future steps, she says, "The sky’s the limit."
"I have dedicated more than half of my life to this art form — as a singer myself, a student, and administrator. The opera world has not seen the last of me. It is a big beautiful space that is inhabited by many companies and performing opportunities, so just stay tuned."