When Afton Battle took over the Fort Worth Opera end of 2020, she faced a daunting challenge: transforming the business — during a pandemic that had shuttered other performing arts groups. And it’s even the first time that Battle has led an opera company.
But his career prospects aren’t all that matters. There is the future of the Fort Worth Opera itself – the company was financially fragile.
And there are wider implications for the world of classical music.
“I am currently the only black female general manager of an opera company in North America,” she said. “So there are a lot of eyes on me and the Fort Worth Opera.”
They’re watching not only because she’s a breakthrough recruit; that’s what she’s trying to do with the company.
Fort Worth Opera’s most recent production was Zorro; he sold out all three shows at the Rose Marine Theater in January. In the form of a stage show, Zorro had only two musicians and no choir.
But thanks to fight director Jeff Colangelo, there were the sword fights and whippings that are pretty much required for any story of a masked vengeful hero of the 19th century.
In fact, Ben Huegel drove up from Denton with his friend Cesar Aranda to watch their first opera, that is, to watch Zorro. Ben is a fan of the Zorro of pulp novels and movies.
“Oh yeah, he’s a lot of fun, the action, swordsman kind of hero,” Huegel said. “Watching this in the live theater – where it feels a little more tangible, a little less superficial – was a lot of fun for me.”
As young Latino men who had never seen opera before, Huegel and Aranda are a popular audience for an opera company like Fort Worth’s. Battle has staked his leadership on his reorientation to embrace communities and artists — black, Latino, Asian — who have traditionally been marginalized or mostly ignored in the world of opera.
“I don’t think a season should pass, ever,” Battle said, “that we’re not intentionally programming a work or works by composers, artists and creatives who represent the global mainstream.”
To be fair, composer-lyricist Hector Armienta Zorro was in preparation for a premiere at the Fort Worth Opera House before Battle took over. But last year’s gala A Night of Black Excellence: Past, Present and Future — which brought together poets, opera singers and an ensemble of African drums and dance — which has been his idea.
And it clicked. The 900 seats in the IM Terrell Academy auditorium are 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 it makes sense to reach out to what has been for the most part an untapped resource for opera in Fort Worth. And when it comes to that other audience to reach – the Latin American community – Fort Worth Opera has certainly presented “mariachi operas”, operas in Spanish, often aimed at school children.
But Joe Illick, the company’s longtime musical director and now its artistic director, says “raising awareness” is no longer how the company treats those efforts.
He said it’s “as if we’re sitting at the center of the work that almost every opera company does – focusing on Verdi and Puccini and extending to Bizet and Mozart and maybe some contemporary pieces. “.
And the shows in Spanish were presented as if their audience was outside opera audience.
“So now we’re really trying to say, ‘Let’s not make this the centerpiece that we’re doing outreach from. Let’s already make what was once awareness into the center.”
This barely means the Fort Worth Opera is giving up Mozart, Verdi and Wagner. They’re all just in the same mix with Zorro. In April, the company will introduce Verdi’s La Traviata at Bass Hall. For comparison: Bass Hall has over 2,000 seats. The Rose Marine has 150. So in its full run, Zorro was viewed by approximately 450 people in total. La Traviata could be seen by more than 4,000 people.
But productions like Zoro, staged at smaller theaters like the Rose Marine are now considered “main” shows by the Fort Worth Opera – not just side efforts. Putting opera productions and concerts in smaller venues like Downtown Cowtown at the Isis makes them accessible to people who never go to Bass Hall, Battle said. And their small scale makes financial sense.
“The company has recovered,” Battle said, “to scale up and produce within its means.”
In all of this, Battle said, COVID actually provided a break. Not having to produce a full season, she had time to create a series of drive-in operas as an interim measure – and time to work on transforming the direction of the business, its finances, its audience.
In the immediate future, Battle would not name the names or titles of operas she plans to present by black or Latino composers. Nor any opera she hopes to stage in smaller theaters around the city. There are still too many moving parts.
“What I can tell you,” she said, “is that when we announce our season and you look on the brochure, it will look like an advertisement for United Colors of Benetton.”
Battle is from Texas – she was born in Lubbock, raised in El Paso, her parents moved to Fort Worth before Afton arrived in 2020.
“I grew up in a home 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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