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Afton Battle: New Fort Worth Opera general director proves you can come home again

🕐 11 min read

Afton Battle, a native Texan with extensive experience in both opera performance and in arts administration and audience and fund development, is the new general director at the Fort Worth Opera.

Fort Worth Opera Board Chair Nelson E. Claytor, Ph.D., is relieved. Claytor is the chair of the board and has been the acting general director since the abrupt resignation of Tuomas Hiltunen in January. Hiltunen was hired in July 2017 to replace Darren K. Woods, who left the opera in February 2017.

“Her warmth, energy, focus, and fresh perspectives on our beloved art form make her ideally suited to lead us into Fort Worth Opera’s 75th anniversary and beyond,” Claytor said in the announcement of her hiring.

“These are obviously unprecedented times for the arts,” he said later in an interview with the Business Press. “Opera in particular is difficult because singing is one of the very worst things you could do to potentially spread the pandemic. So very few opera companies are performing right now, at least in a traditional way.

“I think our needs are some fresh perspectives on what we do and on how we do it, which I think she brings, and also clearly to maintain our philanthropic support through this time when ticket sales will be even more difficult than they usually are,” Claytor said.

Battle was launched on a career pathway that involved becoming a development fundraising professional with a leading opera company as a way to ultimately become an administrator, but said that when she learned of the position at Fort Worth Opera, and looked at the needs of the position and of the company, it really felt like a match.

“It felt like the moment in which purpose and mission, personal mission and development, personal development and goals meet destiny and opportunity,” she said.

It made sense on several levels.

Her parents, Roger and Joyce Battle, live in Fort Worth where he is senior pastor of Focus Faith Baptist Church.

And she’s Texan, born in Lubbock, moved to El Paso when she was about 4, and moved to Amarillo the summer of her freshman year of high school – Palo Duro High School in case you are interested. She attended three years at Amarillo College and then transferred to the University of Houston where she finished her undergraduate degree. She later went Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey, and received a master of music in voice performance and pedagogy degree in 2010.

But it was in Amarillo that she would meet the person who would her future life.

“My daddy is a minister. My grandfather was a minister. So I grew up in church choir. I grew up singing in school choir, but I never thought about being a singer. I was going to go to school  to be a business and international marketing major,” she said.

She was singing in a Miss Juneteenth pageant where Mila Gibson, the director and founder of Amarillo Opera and a teacher at West Texas A&M and Amarillo College, was a judge.

“And she heard me sing and she offered me free voice lessons,” Battle said. “She brought me into her voice studio and just let me sing as loud and proud as I wanted to and started giving me voice lessons and then offered me a partial scholarship to Amarillo College as a music minor.”

She began to dabble – her word – in music and take it more seriously but not enough to become a music major.

“And the moment I knew I wanted to be a singer was I was at a NATS (National Association of Teachers of Singing) competition in North Texas. It was at UNT and we went to see La Traviata.”

It was her first time to see a live opera and she was entranced.

“Right now, I have goosebumps thinking about it, but I had all of the emotions and we got back to Amarillo a couple of days later, I went to the registrar’s office at Amarillo College and I said, ‘I need to change my major to music vocal performance.’ And that was the moment that I knew, is when I first experienced live theater and a live opera, was the moment I knew,” she said.

La Traviata is an opera in three acts by Italian composer Giuseppe Verdi (libretto in Italian by Francesco Maria Piave) that premiered in Venice at La Fenice Opera House in 1853.

Gibson, who now lives in Sweetwater, was thrilled when Battle’s hiring was announced.

“I just wept with joy when I read that,” she said. “I was fortunate that she was sent to me as a teenager and that I heard she had a gift and potential, and I also realized that she had a brilliant mind, that she was really, really intelligent, and so I gave her some things to challenge her. I gave her an aria that she wasn’t ready for, but her voice was so huge, I knew it wouldn’t hurt it and she needed to be challenged. Everything was too easy for her.”

Gibson recalls a special moment when Battle sang her first major solo before a large live audience. It was at an annual Lift Every Voice and Sing concert at the 2,500 seat Amarillo Civic Center.

Fort Worth Opera General Director Afton Battle courtesy

Singer Jessye Norman was a big star at the time and Battle was wearing a “glowing costume” and had a Jessye Norman hairdo.

“She might’ve been 17 or something. And she walked out on that stage and she had that presence. The audience burst in applause before she opened her mouth,” Gibson said. “She got a standing ovation, and I knew then she’s not going to look back. She’s got that something. She’s going to at least give this a go.”

Battle had a successful career as a young operatic singer and then became a highly regarded arts administrator, development director and consultant in the art, ballet, and theater worlds of Chicago and New York City, masterminding several significant corporate campaigns.

But other than as a performer, she had never worked in the opera industry, so she was thinking of trying the catch on with a major opera where she could work her way up.

There aren’t many women doing what she is doing now.

“We could probably count on two and a half hands how many female general directors there are in opera, but we can only count on two fingers how many black female general directors there have ever been. And that is Linda Jackson and myself,” she said.

Linda Jackson is now managing director at Byrd Hoffman Water Mill Foundation.

Battle has big hopes and plans for Fort Worth Opera.

“I am dedicated and driven and a huge advocate for education, for community engagement. And that is where the pillars of our company stand and where they will be planted because without a strong, secure, loving, healthy relationship with the community that you serve, you can’t be a successful company in my opinion, especially in a place like Fort Worth and Tarrant County, because the community makes up your audience,” she said.

“Afton Battle is a force of nature who will catapult Fort Worth Opera into the national spotlight,” Artistic Director, conductor and composer Joe Illick said when her selection was announced.

“She has a brilliant mind, boundless energy, a genuine connection with the Fort Worth community, a deep love and understanding of opera, and above all, a real compassion for humanity that will be a guiding light for all that Fort Worth Opera does in the years to come.”

Upcoming seasons will expand upon the company’s Noches de Òpera programming and feature an even greater variety of stories, celebrating Fort Worth’s rich cultural mosaic, the opera said in her announcement.

“A lot of the work that Joe Illick has produced and the initiatives that Fort Worth Opera has started into are based in the community, not just the opera within the Hispanic community,” Battle said.

Her long-term vision for Fort Worth Opera includes a commitment to forging new alliances with local arts organizations, bolstering current partnerships, expanding civic engagement through the company’s acclaimed educational programs and initiatives, and building a world-class Resident and Studio Artist Program to encourage and foster the growth of the next generation of emerging young opera singers.

In addition to continuing the opera’s long legacy of offering a balance of operatic jewels, classic warhorses and cutting-edge contemporary works each season, Battle is dedicated to leveling the field of equity, inclusivity, and equality both on and off the stage.

“Building that relationship is one thing, and it’s great to build it, but we also have to carry that through and sustain and maintain and foster and cultivate those relationships with residents, with community members, but also with community leaders, leaders of faith, civic leaders, and not only in the Hispanic community, but also in the Black and African American community, as well as the Asian, Asian American community, as well as the LGBTQIA+ community,” Battle said.

It’s more than just staging a performance.

“You have to go inside of those communities and find [where] individuals who reside and live in those communities intersect with your organization, what drives them, what they are passionate about, what they want to see,” she said.

“And then you also have to be able to show that community representation onstage and offstage. Little Black kids coming to the opera, little Latino kids coming to the opera, Asian American kids coming to the opera to see someone who looks like them on stage is huge. I didn’t have role models growing up or coming up and seeing opera.”

Her role models were Gibson and Mary Jane Johnson, both of whom encouraged, taught, trained and pushed her in Amarillo and are “legendary role models.”

“Neither of them though look like me. So if I had seen someone who looked like Afton Battle on stage, I mean, just imagine at that age what the possibilities could have been in my mind,” she said.

Johnson is general and artistic director of the Amarillo Opera.

“We’re small,” she said.

She, too, was thrilled at Battle’s hiring.

“It’s great. It’s an opportunity for her. It’s an opportunity for them. She’s had a lot of background. She’s the spirit of God, I’ll tell you that, and she has good sense and she should really be successful there, and I hope they love her as much as she’s going to end up loving them,” Johnson said.

Battle says she based her candidacy for the job on elevating Fort Worth Opera back to the place which its founders envisioned and where it was in its heyday, but better.

“But better is all the things I mentioned in terms of community engagement, growing and fortifying our resident artist program, growing and fortifying our voice competition to where young singers think, ‘I want to do five competitions and the McCammon is one of them,’ ” she said.

The opera is already doing a fantastic children’s opera theater, bringing more of that education and music education to the schools and a tremendous job doing that in a virtual content and virtual land, Battle said.

“And we at Fort Worth Opera are working hard at maintaining that innovative platform to be able to remove the barriers to access for everyone and anyone who wants to access opera, who may not feel comfortable coming downtown and going to Bass Hall when we’re able to get back in Bass Hall and they can see us online and start their relationship with us there.

“So when we are able to gather again and we have a season, it will be fantastic. It will be beautiful. It will be wonderful. It will be joyous. It will be celebratory, but also we are here and will remain in a space as well that allows those individuals who may not have access to engage with us in person or in a hall to still have quality performances and quality music in their life,” she said.

Fort Worth Opera was formed May 29, 1946, when three musicians, Eloise MacDonald Snyder, Betty Berry Spain and Jeanne Axtell Walker, filed for a state corporation charter under the name Fort Worth Civic Opera Association. 74 years later, the company has become the longest continually active municipal opera association in Texas and the 14th oldest opera company in the United States.

Includes material from the Fort Worth Opera news release

About Afton Battle

Afton Battle comes to Fort Worth Opera following development and strategic consulting work with Red Clay Dance Company, the National Black Theatre, the African American Policy Forum, and Brooklyn arts and culture firm Red Olive Consulting.

She was previously the Director of Development for the New York Theatre Workshop, Director of the Annual Campaign for America’s premiere ballet company, The Joffrey Ballet, and the Corporate and Foundation Relations and Individual Giving Manager for the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Illinois.

Prior to that, she served as the Program and Grants Manager for Bank Street College of Education in New York.

Paul Harral
Paul is a lifelong journalist with experience in wire service, newspaper, magazine, local and network television and digital media. He was vice president and editor of the editorial page of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and editor of Fort Worth, Texas magazine before joining the Business Press. What he likes best is writing about people in detail and introducing them to others in the community. Specific areas of passion are homelessness, human trafficking, health care and aerospace.

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