Podcast 76: Afton Battle, General Director of Fort Worth Opera

Afton Battle, the new General Director of Fort Worth Opera, after having left a career as an opera singer to work in strategic consulting and development for the National Black Theatre, New York Theatre Workshop, the Joffrey Ballet, and the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago, Battle brings a unique and well-rounded skill-set to her new position.

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LISTEN TO EPISODE 76

Introducing our newest host: Ashley Renee Watkins

Current Music Playlist:

  • Lizzo: two albums – Lizzobangers & Big Grrrl Small World
  • The Gift: Beyonce aka Black is King
  • HOMECOMING: Beyoncé
  • Missy Elliott—Iconology
  • Best of Ciara (especially “Thug Style”)
  • Megan Thee Stallion: “Body” is currently her favorite jam
  • Cardi B just about everything. Especially “WAP” and “MONEY”
  • Emily King. EP and Scenery

What’s up with Forth Worth Opera during COVID?

  • Festival 2020 was postponed, it usually is presented in March & April.
    • November 2021 is the company’s 75th Anniversary!
      • Zorro! with score & libretto by Hector Armienta was postponed.

Afton is looking to bring new directors to FWO who can bring a different lens to traditional canon operas.

She is building or rebuilding community connections with FWO in two key areas, Leaders of Faith and Performing Arts Schools in hopes of to make the company to be called “The People’s Company”.

Sheran Goodspeed Keyton is the Manager of Education and Community Engagement for FWO.

Current Initiatives:

One Blessing that the Covid Pandemic has brought is through the video-digital medium the barrier to audience access has been eliminated.

  • Teen Opera Club of Texas
    • A program created for the Texas Opera Alliance by the 5 founding companies Education Directors.
      • Opportunities are provided for teens to learn about opera happening right now in Texas. Events will include access to opera artists and administrative personnel sharing insights and expertise on a variety of topics including opera performance, production and design, the creation of new opera, conducting and the opera orchestra, and so much more!
  • FWO Green Room
    • A new digital initiative to kick off Fort Worth Opera’s 75th anniversary season! In this time of social distancing, as opera companies across the globe continue to explore innovative ways to connect with audiences and build dynamic relationships through technology, we are thrilled to offer you an exciting blend of entertaining and interactive online content. Join us for exhilarating performances, seminars, masterclasses, a two-night libretto workshop with an all-star panel, an inspirational choral project featuring the stunning Fort Worth Opera Chorus, and round-table discussions with some of the most remarkable luminaries of the opera world.
  • FWO GO
    • An exciting artistic initiative featuring socially distanced, pop-up performances in neighborhoods across the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Our talented Lesley Resident Artists will perform classic opera arias, musical theater selections, and beloved standards from the Great American Songbook on a flatbed trailer pulled by a Texas-sized pickup truck.
  • Holiday Cheer Video
    • FWO staff and dearest friends came together to share their musical talents and film a heart-warming concert of seasonal favorites to thank the donors and community for their continued support. Holiday Cheer in collaboration with DVA Productions Inc. features FWO Lesley Resident Artists, staff, and special guests. Videos were filmed with smartphones, tablets, and other personal devices. Various community partners graciously gave access to their lobbies and exhibit spaces: The Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, Amon Carter Museum of American Art, and Kimbell Art Museum.
      • This program was also shared with children’s hospitals and other care facilities.

Texas Opera Alliance

  • Formed in 2020, the Texas Opera Alliance (TOA) is a collaborative initiative of five major Texas opera companies, including Austin Opera, Dallas Opera, Fort Worth Opera, Houston Grand Opera, and OPERA San Antonio. TOA explores innovative production partnerships, audience-building initiatives, and collaborative investments in new works, to ensure that the art form continues to thrive in the Lone Star State.
  • In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the partners’ initial focus will be the creation and sharing of virtual experiences that will keep current opera fans connected during a time of social distancing while enticing new operagoers through digital mediums. In its first year, TOA will cross-promote digital content and programming while creating unique touchpoints with audience members from all five organizations. In addition to streaming video content, TOA will provide members access to an array of publications and online resources, webinars, and supplementary programming. Through this cross-promotion, the organizations’ digital content will have a larger reach across the state.

FRONTIERS: FWO Librettist Workshop

  • An exciting exploration of operatic storytelling, and the eighth installment of the company’s innovative new works showcase. Led by Pulitzer Prize and Grammy Award-winning librettist and lyricist Mark Campbell, this two-night online event will be held in front of a live Zoom audience.
    • The first seven installments of Frontiers highlighted thrilling new un-produced works-in-progress, this years workshop strips away the musical elements and focusses entirely upon the text of new operas in-the-making.
      • In addition to Mr. Campbell’s presence, FWO’s workshop will feature a distinguished panel of librettists, composers, directors, and artists, including Héctor Armienta, Nicole Brooks, Octavio Cardenas, Blythe Gaissert, Alison Moritz, Rachel J. Peters, Kelley Rourke, and Talise Trevigne.
        • The future goal is focus this program as a platform to support BIPOC creators in developing new works.

Afton Battle wants FWO to become a company that gives American BIPOC singers their due, as well as in other areas of opera production where they have been regularly excluded, respected or properly remunerated.

When FWO produced Porgy & Bess two years ago, the production brought in a new influx of Black audiences and donors. However, there was no real follow thru or engagement from the company management to retain and build upon their initial interest.

Voices for Votes

  • Fort Worth voters found something good at the polls on Election Day: mini-concerts to help pass the time while waiting in line.
    • “Voices for Votes is an initiative born out of Fort Worth Opera’s FWO GO, which is a mobile opera truck initiative.
      • FWO GO, Fort Worth Opera Go debuted in October, rolling a flatbed trailer on a pickup truck and setting up in parking lots to sing for those who showed up. Now on election day, the trailer will roll up to select polling sites for the opera’s Voices for Votes pop-up performances.

STONE SOUP and the Tarrant Area Food Bank

  • FWO partnered with the Tarrant Area Food Bank in November on a mobile pantry, community food drive, and two performances of the new Texas-themed children’s opera, Stone Soup, at Fort Worth’s Farrington Field parking lot.
    • This uplifting two-day family event combines the joy and excitement of a live musical performance with a much-needed lesson of unity, collaboration, and kindness for all.
      • Written by FWO Artistic Director Joe Illick and Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell
        • Stone Soup presents an age-old tale and gives it a Texas twist, as a hungry, penniless, 13-year-old girl named Sally arrives at the steps of a local General Store in Blessing, Texas during the Great Depression, and teaches the townspeople the value of sharing and working together.
  • On November 7, families watched the live performance of Stone Soup and then received food donations from FWO’s huge cauldron, offering children an important opportunity to witness how their community has come together to support them, just like in the story.
    • On November 8, families watched the opera and then placed their food donations into the cauldron, as a kind gesture to help other families in need across North Texas.

The next goal is to find out the best way to capture audience data from the pop-up or site-specific performances.

By promoting the use of social media apps to provide immediate feedback and also facilitate easier ways to donate.

FWO is looking at how to send selections from MainStage productions out into the communities either on the opera truck or into the schools.

How to create a more inviting performance space to all audiences?

Brooke:

Lincoln Center is not the most inviting of complex of performance spaces.

  • Create company ambassadors
    • When you aren’t able to control the principal audience services staff for your performance venues, build a group from staff and volunteers to present a more inviting atmosphere.

Ashley Renee:

  • Lincoln Center Moments is a free performance-based program specially designed for individuals with dementia and their caregivers. Join us as we bring Lincoln Center’s unparalleled artistry to an intimate and supported setting. Each program includes a performance, followed by activities facilitated by educators and music therapists exploring the work through discussion, movement, music, and art-making.

Afton:

  • FWO has a “relaxed performance” initiative for young people on the spectrum.
  • Companies need to build a whole program that engages their audiences from pre thru post performance.

Brooke:

  • On Site Opera supplies a program for your smart phone that includes the libretto and supertitles for their productions.

Walker:

  • Brooklyn Museum Engagement program
    • “Target First Saturdays” at the Brooklyn Museum attracts thousands of visitors who come for a free night out, to see the gallery exhibits, hear speakers and live music, watch free films, and participate in hands-on art activities. Every First Saturday event is organized around a different and always interesting theme.

Afton:

  • Affirmations for aspiring BIPOC cultural leaders
    • Your resume alone makes you more qualified than most white men/women in the opera industry.
    • You deserve to have a voice at the table.
    • You deserve exactly what you are asking for, don’t accept less.

WHAT TO WATCH:

Brooke:

  • The Decameron Opera Coalition
    • The aim is to keep opera alive, new work blossoming, singers singing, and audiences rapt, even in these alarming times, through a new collaboration of unprecedented scope.
      • We are nine independent opera companies from across the United States: Resonance Works [Pittsburgh], Lyric Opera of the North [Duluth], UrbanArias [Washington DC], Bare Opera [NYC], Opera in the Heights [Houston], Chicago Fringe Opera, Milwaukee Opera Theatre, Fargo-Moorhead Opera, and An Opera Theatre [Minneapolis], along with composer and librettist Peter Hilliard and Matt Boresi (The Last American Hammer).
        • For our maiden project we’ve commissioned nine teams of contemporary opera’s most vital and most diverse creative voices to showcase America’s indispensable indie opera scene, and dedicate ourselves to new sounds, unparalleled storytelling, and underrepresented voices.
          • Independent opera companies are where new audiences are born, where discerning opera appetites are fed, where new work is incubated, and where talent is nurtured. The Decameron Opera Coalition is the future of opera. 

Afton:

  • Bernadette’s Cosy Book Nook
    • An all-new digital opera whose setting is a Zoom call.
      • Composed by FWO artistic director Joe Illick and librettist Mark Campbell, the work will debut as a live-streaming event on January 14, 2021. It’s the Fort Worth Opera’s ninth world premiere.
        • Directed & edited by Cara Consilvio with music direction/sound editing by Andrew Whitfield.
          • Cast:Brenda Harris, Donnie Ray Albert, Joyce Castle, William Burden, FWO Lesley Resident Artist Gabrielle Gilliam, pianist Aldo López-Gavilán, and the world-renowned Harlem Quartet

BIO: 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. A native of Amarillo, Ms. Battle graduated from the University of Houston with a degree in Voice Performance, before attending Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey and receiving a Master of Music in Voice Performance and Pedagogy. As Ms. Battle joins Fort Worth Opera this season, she gratefully acknowledges Angelique Clay, President of the Field Foundation, and Mila Gibson, voice teacher, music educator, and founder of Amarillo Opera, for their mentorship, guidance, and career development advice that encouraged her to pursue a path in opera and arts administration.

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