The American history of opera dates back to the 18th century, and throughout its history, black musicians have shaped an art form that tells a story through music and song.
“The past has completely colored and shaped who we are, but as a people it has shaped how we feel, how I feel, is important to bring to the fore, that is, our history, our culture, our movement, our drive through the arts, through music, through gospel music, jazz, blues, even country music. And that has its place in classical music. We’re going through this birth of be a musician across all these different genres and you end up as an opera singer,” said Afton Battle, who was hired in late 2020 to direct Fort Worth Opera.
The classically trained singer is from Texas and the first female and first black CEO in the company’s history.
“We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We stand on the shoulders of HT Burleigh. We stand on the shoulders of Florence Price, of Margaret Bonds, our legends and ancestors who are no longer with us. And then we let us also hold on the shoulders of our colleagues and artists who are still with us but had to come before us to get to this point Anthony Davis who wrote terrific operas about Malcolm X. He wrote Central Park Five and won a Pulitzer. Anthony has been writing operas for over 30 years. And so not only do we stand on his shoulders. We stand side by side with him,” Battle said.
- Burleigh (1886-1949) is considered America’s first prominent black composer.
- Price (1887-1953) is considered the first African-American composer to achieve national status.
- Bonds (1913-1972) was a pianist, composer, and the first black guest to perform with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
- Davis (1971- ) premiered his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at the American Music Theater Festival in 1985.
As Battle planned for FWO’s 2022-23 season, she continued her commitment to being “The People’s Company.” Its goal from day one has been to present opera experiences that speak to and engage the community.
“This work does not stop. It continues to evolve. It continues to deepen. And it continues to grow. And we have to be stable in the race, and we have to be able to put our heels and our markers in what believe us,” Battle said.
“That’s what I’ve sought to do in the 76th season, is to show the Fort Worth community, yes, we’re an opera company. Yes, we do great opera on stage, but we let’s also recognize and see our community for the vibrant, colorful and diverse community and it’s important to me that everyone sees themselves within that community in this company, that they see themselves on stage, that they see themselves in our staff, in our board, which means they see themselves in our audience.
The season opens October 21 with performances of Noches de Latinidad: El Fuego de Una Mujer (Latin Nights: A Woman’s Fire) with Catalina Cuervo and Eduardo Rojas, and a one-night-only performance of Noches de Zarzuela, a Hispanic Heritage Month Celebration Concert at the Artes de la Rosa Arts Cultural Center at the Rose Marine Theater.
In November, the spotlight shines on Metropolitan Opera star Karen Slack in concert at Texas Christian University’s (TCU) new Van Cliburn Concert Hall, titled My Sister’s Keeper and featuring award-winning pianist Michelle Cann.
In December, the company will partner with the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) for a return of Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Then in January, FWO will perform the Southern premiere of Damien Geter’s symphonic work An African American Requiem at TCU’s Van Cliburn Concert Hall.
The piece will be followed by a revival of the society’s Black History Month concert, A Night of Black Excellence, which will be performed again at the historic IM Terrell Academy in Fort Worth ISD for STEM and VPA in February. .
FWO’s season concludes with a concert featuring Verdi’s Aida with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) at TCU’s Van CliburnConcert Hall, and Hattie Mae Lesley’s annual resident artist showcase.
“It’s a piece that has caused some controversy in our industry where they have an Aida who is not a woman of color and they darken her skin. Same as Othello. So casting this whole opera like he could have been played in North Africa at the time. I wanted to have, of course, a black Aida,” Battle said.
Prior to Aida’s presentation, FWO will also be hosting a series of symposia on April 13-15, 2023, which will address racial equity in the arts.
“This two-day symposium will be held with a wonderful panel of educators and scholars, talking and deepening some of these conversations that we haven’t had publicly in our art form, which is why wouldn’t you play not a role or a play like Aida exactly as I’ve described it to you,” Battle said. “Why aren’t we telling these stories from perspectives in which we’re able to show and see our community fully represented?”
To advance the advocacy mission, the FWO Board of Directors last year approved a set of principles focused on diversity, equity, inclusion and access.
“Over several months, a diverse group of Fort Worth Opera employees and board members, artists, DEIA professionals and community leaders worked to create a meaningful statement of principles to guide business and move the Fort Worth Opera forward in a more inclusive and courageous direction, as well as to bring opera performance and education to as many people as possible in the most authentic and accessible way” , Board Administrator Ebony Rose said in a press release.