By Dan Singer
When Afton Battle resigned last week as head of Fort Worth Opera, the news caused a stir among opera leaders, musicians and patrons in North Texas and beyond.
This week, they’re not done talking — and for good reason.
Battle was one of the first Black women ever to lead a U.S. opera company. Her pledge, she said shortly after accepting the position in 2020, was to bolster Fort Worth Opera’s commitment to inclusivity and diversity.
That goal, according to Battle, came with its fair share of obstacles.
“Y’all know the challenges of being Black in this world,” she wrote in a June 30 post on Facebook. “Magnify that with being a woman running an arts organization in a conservative city and state.
“Running this company hasn’t been easy, y’all. And [I’m] sure you can guess why.”
Those who cheered Battle’s arrival as general director now point to her departure as evidence of a failed commitment to racial justice, the kind many legacy arts groups made, at least nominally, after the murder of George Floyd. Others have criticized her for what they see as mismanagement of the oldest continually performing opera company in Texas, at a time when arts groups across the country have been fighting to survive.
Particularly worrying to some former board members The Dallas Morning News spoke with in the months before Battle’s resignation was her decision to add a page on the company’s website supporting the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020.
“We hired her to be general director, not the voice of activism,” said Whit Smith, a former board member who was on the search committee that hired Battle. He left the company in 2021, and since then has not attended any Fort Worth Opera performances nor donated to the company. “And that’s the way it sat with me.”
Neither Smith nor Kris Lindsay, another former board member who served on the search committee, are on social media, where they might have become aware of Battle’s activism, Lindsay said.
The opera is “an arts organization, not a political organization,” Lindsay added. And it’s “trying to reach everyone, not just one group.”
Kenney Elkomous, a board member at Arts Administrators of Color Network, fired back on Facebook: “It’s amazing that the former board members who went on record had the GALL to say that the arts aren’t political. And just the way they talk about Afton is extremely condescending and patronizing. They make it seem like Afton performed some kind of bait and switch between her interviews for the job and her tenure.”
Elkomous knows about the classical music scene in Fort Worth, having previously worked there as a classical guitarist and a patron development manager for the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra.
“I wish Afton the very best, and I wish the arts in Fort Worth and beyond start ridding their boards of people who don’t understand the intersection of art and politics/activism/social issues,” he said.
Active as an opera singer up to the apprentice level, Battle later moved into arts administration, working as director of development at the New York Theatre Workshop and director of the annual fundraising campaign at the Joffrey Ballet.
She is the second general director in a row to have left after only two seasons at Fort Worth Opera, which celebrated its 75th anniversary last year. Both she and her predecessor, Tuomas Hiltunen, were unlikely candidates for the job. Neither had previous experience as general director at an opera company.
Let alone one weathering a pandemic. The coronavirus forced the company to cancel its 2020 spring festival. In 2021, ticket sales across D-FW arts companies were 58% lower than in 2019, according to Southern Methodist University research, and individual contributions were down more than 60%.
The News reached out to the opera, which said a full picture of its current financials would take time to produce.
Battle’s biggest change to the company was doing away with much of its traditional programming in favor of cheaper options. She eliminated the spring festival format, instead offering mainly small-scale concerts around the area featuring both Black and Latin American singers and composers. It was a necessity, she said, for reasons besides dollars and cents.
“I don’t think a season should pass, ever,” Battle previously told KERA News, “that we don’t intentionally program a work or works by composers and artists and creatives who represent the global majority.”
Before she arrived, the company had made a start at engaging with diverse groups. In 2017, it launched Noches de Ópera (Nights of Opera), focusing on Spanish-language operas and Latino culture. Battle expanded those efforts, featuring Black and Latin American singers and composers much more extensively than ever before at the company.
Over Battle’s tenure, the company has staged only one full-scale opera, La traviata, albeit in a trimmed version. The current season doesn’t include a single staged production — only a concert version of Verdi’s Aida, with a mostly Black cast.
Questions now swirl over the future of the company, what exactly it stands for and how it can sustain itself. And in the immediate aftermath of Battle’s announcement, it has offered few answers so far about how it plans to move ahead.
The News reached several current board members, only one of whom agreed to speak publicly. Acting board president Hayne Shumate said in a statement that he is “deeply grateful to Afton for her leadership and vision during her time with Fort Worth Opera.”
He added in a phone interview that the company is talking with possible candidates for the directorship.
In the meantime, Battle’s news has been picked up as far as New York, by Opera News, and the U.K., where classical tabloid Slipped Disc summed it up this way: “US opera chief quits amid loud Battle cries.”
Tim Diovanni contributed to this report.
Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.
This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.