A Letter to Afton Battle from the Black Administrators of Opera
December 21, 2022
Dear Afton Battle, leader and artivist,
You have demonstrated competence, courage, and leadership in your successful tenure with Fort Worth Opera. Experienced as an opera singer, arts administrator, fundraiser, and arts activist, you were uniquely poised to fill the role of Fort Worth Opera’s general and artistic director. We see you. We write this letter to acknowledge your work and profound example of leadership in the opera field and nonprofit performing arts.
Defying the odds
Afton, you tout a host of accomplishments that were gained throughout your time with Fort Worth Opera. Particularly notable is your skillful and successful engagement with Fort Worth communities, resulting in dynamic company programming and a more diverse revenue stream. The opera industry faced challenges in gathering and presenting performances during the onset of the global pandemic with the risk of spreading the deadly COVID-19 virus. Many were concerned about the stability and relevance of opera companies during a time when in-person performances were not possible. The inability to fulfill company mission and perform threatened funding from grants and greatly reduced earned revenue. Fort Worth Opera was no exception and faced even greater challenges as a company that struggled with “artistic direction and fundraising” leading to “financial constraints” according to an October 25, 2022 KERA News article about your resignation. You more than met the requirements and completed the duties assigned to you per Fort Worth Opera’s general director job description. Defying the odds, you garnered support from new funders and audiences who invested in your vision for the company.
Your decision to present meaningful works in smaller venues throughout Fort Worth was both financially and socially responsible. Rather than upholding unsustainable practices and presenting expensive, fully staged works that would only add to the financial challenges you inherited upon accepting the general director position, you methodically identified various locations throughout the city that would support Fort Worth Opera’s strategic goals. In an interview with Texas Standard, you stated that Fort Worth Opera had “turned itself around”. In addition to financially sound business decisions, the performance locations throughout the community engaged “people who never go to Bass Hall”. This decision helped make the company and the opera art form more visible and accessible to the community. Your efforts to “right size” the company and “produce within its means” helped stabilize its finances, programming, and community engagement, placing Fort Worth Opera in a better position than when you arrived.
The People’s Company
You addressed these inherited challenges by becoming “the people’s company” and increasing the community’s sense of co-investment in the oldest continually operating opera company in Texas. With this commitment voiced on NBC News DFW, you led more robust programming and fundraising efforts that intentionally centered the identities of communities who are historically underrepresented and/or ignored in the opera art form. You are cited as naming diversifying audiences, the board, donors, staff members, and singers as evidence of successful engagement in the KERA News article. And rightfully so as these accomplishments demonstrate that it is possible to achieve what many leaders have been trying to do for decades — engage diverse audiences through different approaches to creating and performing opera.
The KERA News article cites former board member Kris Lindsay, stating that Fort Worth Opera “reached out many times to the Hispanic and Black communities, and to the military. We’ve really made the effort over the years to be an inclusive company and to be relevant.” However, a palpable shift in attendance, audience demographics, and industry-wide relevance for Fort Worth Opera was clear with productions that celebrated Black and Latin American communities and emerging artists of all identities. You shared the success of this deeper commitment with OPERA America, stating “newcomers are gravitating to us. We’ve gotten hit after hit — inquiries of folks wanting to be part of the opera revolution, which is about being in the service of your community in the 21st century.” These well-attended and sold-out performances saw newcomers — both to the art form and Fort Worth Opera — and seasoned opera lovers who represent the cultural diversity of Fort Worth, Texas. Fort Worth Opera’s aspirations for outreach were realized under your direct leadership and action-driven efforts to remove barriers to opera.
You informed the board of your resignation in July 2022 and yet decided to remain in your dual leadership position of general and artistic director through the opening of the 2022–23 season to ensure the impressive work you began extends well beyond your tenure.
Thank you, Afton, for …
1. Courageously taking on the role of general director during the pandemic — a challenging task for every general director and leader in the field. You utilized your administrative and artistic experience to develop creative solutions to many inherited problems within the opera repertoire and within the opera industry.
2. Being an effective and responsive leader who skillfully fulfilled your duties as general and artistic director while also setting higher standards for the organization and the field. Your work stabilized and redirected Fort Worth Opera in a manner that is necessary for the 21st century.
3. Making opera an intentional experience for communities by establishing and deepening relationships with the Black and Latiné/Hispanic communities who comprise 18.8% and 35.3 % of the Fort Worth population respectively according to the U.S. Census.
4. Committing to joining in the support of the communities that surround Fort Worth Opera — evident in the Black Lives Matter statement naming how the arts can and should play a role in collective solutions and the intentional programming of Latin American-centered works despite lack of full support from the board of directors.
5. Demonstrating that intentional efforts to center representation and agency in diversity initiatives truly work for the benefit of all. This is the direction in which all opera companies should be heading, and we all now have an example of successful work.
6. Making sound business decisions that allowed the company to still perform, fundraise, and ensure that opera is meaningful to communities during the pandemic — a difficult and unpredictable time for the opera industry and a daunting task for most leaders.
7. Being an “artivist”. Art is not apolitical, nor is it a tool to solely entertain without the awareness and consciousness of its creators and audiences. Art has always played a role in reflecting the people, present in the works of many beloved opera composers who addressed issues of their time. They were not silent then, and we are not silent now. Thank you for demonstrating what this can be in the 21st century as an organizational and industry-wide leader — as an artivist.
We look forward to continuing to support you in the next endeavors of your impressive career as the founder of BGM Consulting.
Black Administrators of Opera