The purpose of this project is to provide a collection of transcriptions from the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. This project seeks to give a platform to all parts of the vocal performing arts to better understand the lived experiences and mentality of those professionals. In collecting stories from the COVID-19 pandemic Afton Battle, General Director of Fort Worth Opera shares her experience from Chicago and moving in to her new role in Texas.
Afton Battle, General Director of Fort Worth Opera
Interviewed October 9, 2020
TB: First off, a big congratulations on your appointment to General Director of Fort Worth Opera! I like to start off on a positive note, so what is the best thing that has happened to you in the last week?
AB: That's a really good question. I got to see my parents again. They live in Fort Worth, which is a huge treat for me. I haven't lived in Texas for the past double-digit years and was just coming down to visit them on holidays and birthdays. So to be able to see them more consistently has just been fantastic. So as I go between Fort Worth and Chicago—and planning out that move—it was really nice to see my mom and dad this week.
TB: Especially in this time period, family is so important.
AB: Incredibly important, and they recovered from having had COVID earlier this year. So we are incredibly blessed that they are on this side of it.
TB: So, I know of Afton Battle as the singer, and for many years you lived that life. But then you made the change to being in the administrative role. Would you mind talking to me about making that shift and some of the transitional portions of your life that led you to become the General Director of Fort Worth Opera?
AB: Yes, I came out of school with my master's degree in 2010, after many years of singing professionally between my undergrad and my master's program. Coming out of school in 2010, we were almost at the peak of the economic recession. The recession kept bottoming out the economy, and it became very difficult to really see a path forward as an artist and create stability in my life.
I was living in New York City, which is its own bag of worms in trying to sustain that life. I was also trying to sustain the life and expenses of being a singer: coachings, lessons, etc. We all had two and three jobs and were grinding all the time. At that time, companies were functioning, but jobs for young and emerging singers were few and far between because those companies were seeking out heavy hitters to sell tickets—as they should and needed to do. So as things got increasingly worse in terms of the industry, for me, it was a moment of, "Do I move down the path of creating stability? Or continue to do what I'm doing and see how far and how long I can ride it out?"
I moved toward the way of creating stability for myself while still doing singing. And living in New York, you have opportunities to sing all the time. I was still taking those opportunities, but really pressing pause on anything more substantial or long-term in terms of seeking out what we know as a career. That led me down the path of really thinking about how I could give back to the art form if I could not be on stage. I knew that I wanted to get back into the arts, whatever that meant. I knew I wanted to get back into opera, whatever that meant.
So I tried at every turn, applying and taking internships or entry-level positions, like at the Met Opera Shop. I just didn't have any success. So I found myself in higher education and development. And I learned how to write grants, which is a huge asset and a big job, especially for higher education. I learned how to write grants with all of the nuance of language and bureaucracy of red tape for state, local, and federal grants (which serves me still to this day). Within that, I discovered that this is a part of fundraising. As a young artist, I did it without knowing that I was doing it by going to events, meeting donors, and advocating for the opera company; all of the things that we do when we are presented as guest artists.
Then I started going down the rabbit hole of, "What does this really mean, and what does development look like? What is fundraising and arts management?" That landed me in this sphere of recognizing my strengths—working with people and building relationships. And by this time, singing was on the back burner, and I really started going full-throttle at nonprofit arts management. The biggest step that led me to that point was engaging with an organization in Chicago called Enrich Chicago. It is a nonprofit that was started to help diversify arts management positions in Chicago, which seems incredibly ahead of its time. This was five or six years ago, and they knew that it needed to happen in Chicago. I am literally a product of that organization.
TB: So, thinking back to January through March, can you describe where you were and how you first realized that you would be affected by the pandemic?
AB: January through March, I was living in Chicago. But more specifically, from February into March, I was in South America on holiday. We thought we knew what this was in January, but we weren't paying attention. And in February, we were kind of paying attention but not really. So I went on holiday, and I'm in South America. (If you know anything about Chicago, to get out of Chicago in January/February is the best thing that you could do for yourself.) We went to South America on holiday for two and a half weeks, living our best lives in the sun.
We started to know a little bit more in coming back, and it had reached our shores. So we got back to Chicago. I was in my office for a week and then told that we could work from home. So I was literally working from home and watching the local news when Mayor Lightfoot and Governor Pritzker did a news conference and said that Chicago was going on mandatory lockdown.
That was the sequence: living free and light-hearted in January and going on holiday; in March, we came back, and things started to get a little shaky; then literally, it felt like the rug was completely pulled from underneath us at that time.
TB: And Chicago was one of the big hotspots for a while. So can you talk to me a bit about what it was like being in Chicago? Because, please correct me if I'm wrong, but now you are in Texas, which has also become a hot spot for COVID-19.
AB: Yes. Being in Chicago during the first height of COVID was insane, though not nearly as insane as my colleagues and friends in New York City. But we all have our varying points of insanity, and it has been difficult to understand how this affected Chicago. You get the news conference from the governor, who is talking about all of Illinois, and much like Texas, you have large cities. You have Chicago, Rockford, Peoria, and in-between the large cities, there are much smaller ones. Much like in Texas, where you have Dallas, Fort Worth, Houston, Austin, San Antonio, and then all this land in between. So it was really hard to pinpoint what the updates meant for Chicago.
It was going to the grocery store and assuming a $600 Costco bill because you wanted to get all the food that you needed, so you didn't have to leave the house. It was hunting for toilet paper, paper towels, and cleaning supplies. Those stories were really everywhere. But when you went into the grocery store and the aisle was bare, it was almost this shock of armageddon.
The one thing about the pandemic in Chicago, which was tough, was it happened in March. March, April, and May are still winter in Chicago. And so you are still dealing with cold temperatures, snow, fewer hours of daylight. All of these things are compacted on top of a global pandemic. Then you add in racial injustice issues and the death of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Brianna Taylor. You have literally nowhere to go because 1) you can't go anywhere, and 2) it is freezing cold outside. I felt like I couldn't escape my own skin and then there's added fuel with the protests, looting, and rioting—which had its own uprising in every city. But we all saw Chicago, Portland, and these other major cities on the news. And what you saw was exactly what it was. It literally looked like a war zone with all the boarded-up windows in many places in Chicago. Places like the Magnificent Mile or many places people think of when they think of Chicago were deserted. Because nobody was down there, going to work. And everything was boarded up. Lastly, the violence that generally happens in Chicago—especially during the summer months—is not fictional. It is so real. The summer months in Chicago are incredibly violent. Because people are outside and gathering, those who are seeking to hurt or harm someone can do so and then flee.
All of these things, compounding on top of one another in this city, meant Chicago became a target and spotlight for the administration. So I could only hope and pray that nothing else happened. Then something else would happen. Like Jacob Blake was shot in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Well, Kenosha is an hour from Chicago. (It was really tough, and it still is, especially to pick yourself up mentally from there.)
Then to come to Texas, which just started having its hotspots, is very concerning. We are taking all the precautions at the opera that we need to. Everyone is working from home as much as possible while still trying to run an opera company and produce things. But also, I think maybe my big city mentality—and everything I had to deal with—has followed me here. I still wash my groceries. I sanitize everything when I get home. I have wipes and disinfectant spray everywhere. I have every single mask one could think of in different colors and varieties. It is just what we have to do now.
So the mechanics of it are the same for me, just a different geographic location. Where you are doesn't really make that much of a difference. This pandemic is still here, and it is very real. It is not going anywhere anytime soon. How we come out on the other side of this as individuals, as performing artists, and as an industry of performing arts will undoubtedly tell the history of how we made it over.
TB: As you talked about earlier, you also had a personal experience with your parents having this horrendous disease. That had to be a scary moment as well.
AB: Absolutely. Both of my parents are older and have underlying health conditions or comorbidities, if you will. At the time they contracted the virus, I was still living in Chicago. Fort Worth Opera was not in the purview. So being in Chicago and them being in Fort Worth meant me not being able to help them in any way. It meant me not being here [Fort Worth] with them, to take care of them. It was an added anxiety and burden. So anything that I could do—whether it was ordering groceries etc.—was all I could do. But it was a continued worry for their next test. Is it positive? Is it negative? How are they feeling? Do they have a fever? Can they breathe? It has been an up and down roller coaster since early May.
TB: Thank you for sharing that. I'd like to turn towards Fort Worth Opera. They have been doing some very interesting things, both before your appointment and now after as well. Can you talk me through a bit of what you Are coming into and how you see this evolving through your tenure?
AB: Yes, every performing arts institution is having to pivot. And although it is not desired, virtual and online performing is the only thing we all have. It is how we do everything now. Coming to Fort Worth, what they were already offering was The Green Room, Jennifer Rowley's extensive masterclass series, and Festival Artists Online. These were really, truly innovative for a company that operated on a festival season. A festival season means that everything was truncated into April and May. So right after the pandemic, they had to cancel/postpone the season and respond in a way that would still engage the patrons in the audience.
For them to be able to stand that up as quickly as they did and with as much detail, depth, and participation was really, truly impressive. The team also did it without a general director and with the artistic director, Joe Illick, outside the city because of COVID. A lot of this was happening internally, but without those two major leaders in place physically and one not at all. It was really inspiring, encouraging, and really telling of the dedication, loyalty, and tenacity of this team, which is still very, very true.
Coming into that, I felt it was a huge and wonderful platform to be on. And it has been so well received. What I want to see at this time is an expansion of The Green Room and Festival Artists Online. We have to realize that this pandemic has forced us to turn to this alternative way of connecting and engaging, which is an alternative that should not be forgotten once we can pack a theater again. For us, it won't be forgotten because we have been able to engage audiences that we would not have been able to engage otherwise. We have developed content for the masses that we would not have thought about creating otherwise. We have been able to really eradicate the barrier to access this art form. Now, we can reach more individuals, communities, and people in the far stretches of the area to provide them the same content.
As I look forward in my tenure, it is about solidifying and reinforcing the online content and modeling, and [about] how we can continue to offer what we would normally in a performance venue but also online. Because we have to be realistic that it will take a while for people to become comfortable with being in an enclosed space with large groups. So if we can remain accessible throughout all of that, it will really show a lot for the organization. That is one of the things that we're really working on here. And we're developing more content that is family-friendly, engaging to watch, and satisfying in filling the void that we all have in not attending live theater.
Another thing that is really important to me is developing our audience and community engagement. This is a platform that I stand very firmly on and is very important to me because it is how I came to the world of opera. Through community engagement and education, I learned what opera was. So going out to our communities here in the Dallas/Fort Worth area and being able to remove barriers to take what we can give them directly. Living in North Texas, you have a climate that allows you to do these types of outdoor performances most of the year. You can get on the back of your truck and get out there into the community. And that is what we are working on. We have some really great initiatives forming in terms of mobile opera and mobilizing the art form. That allows us to engage our community in a way that they know we are still here. That is an important thing—especially for Fort Worth Opera with the cancellation/postponement of the festival—reminding people that we are still here. We are still producing great content and great art. And better than anything, we'll bring it right to you.
TB: One of the other sides that I have noticed at Fort Worth Opera is the development of the next generation of singers. Could you talk about that as well?
AB: Absolutely. Last night, we concluded a two-night series, The Frontiers, a series with long-standing legs here at the organization. Within this time of the pandemic, we've revived it and had two nights of really amazing libretto reading. So within Frontiers, librettists bring in their pieces that they are in the process of workshopping. And you get to hear the story being told without music, then your imagination and creativity can really start to forge what a musical arc would be or where duets and ensembles might land. But more so, you get to hear the individual stories because it is just the words. It is storytelling at its finest. And from that series, there have been a few pieces that have premiered here; Companionship being one of those. We are investing in new voices and new stories that are being told.
Our resident artists program is an initiative that is really high on my list in terms of reinforcing that training program as an American company. We are dedicated to providing resources for young singers and emerging singers to train within our walls, work with our music staff, and have comprimario roles or mainstage roles to prepare them for better and bigger things.
I am really passionate about providing not only a voice, a place, and breath for new works and young singers, but also about preparing or providing that same platform for BIPOC artists, for artists who have stories to tell but haven't had the platform to tell them—whether they are composers, librettists, singers, conductors, directors, or scenic designers. [I am interested in helping] Anyone that has what it takes to create live theater and provide the platform for those individuals to flourish and their stories to be told, seen, and heard. That comes full circle on a lot of things, especially representation on stage, which goes into audience development. Therefore, our audience sees more representation of themselves on and off stage. It is all circular and interwoven.
TB: I'd also like to talk about another recent announcement regarding the whole of Texas, the Texas Opera Alliance. Can you talk about how you are seeing that move forward and what you're looking forward to with that?
AB: The Texas Opera Alliance is a wonderful opera company organization here in Texas. It consists of Fort Worth Opera, Dallas Opera, Houston Grand Opera, San Antonio OPERA, and Austin Opera. The Texas Opera Alliance's mission is to advance and diversify the art form of opera. Through innovative and virtual means, we have gone into production partnerships, audience-building initiatives, collaborations, and investments in new works, and telling these stories.
I can invest in all of that at Fort Worth Opera, but this is for the opera community throughout the whole state. In this time of the pandemic, everyone is trying to do their best with what they have. But the Texas Opera Alliance formed to say, "We are better as a collective unit working in tandem rather than alone as individuals."
It is a great initiative, and I am in some really fantastic company with my colleagues in the area. We are working on expanding our reach beyond our current audience base while sharing resources by doing those types of things.
TB: It is clear that Texas is doing great things, which is just wonderful. But I know that this has also had a dramatic effect on the opera industry as a whole. One of the biggest effects is the financial impact. Would you mind talking a bit about that and how you're viewing that at Fort Worth?
AB: It is no surprise that the performing arts industries have taken a huge hit in terms of revenue this year. Our friends in the visual arts have slowly been able to bounce back and offer tickets for museums, zoos, and botanic gardens; all of those things that either don't require contact or are very limited. But when you get to thinking about theater—especially opera, with the production of aerosols and how long they stay in the air—it becomes very daunting.
So with that in mind, with cancellation after cancellation of seasons, and finally, when we all read about the Met cancelling their season, I think (I don't want to say 'it finally set in'), but we all knew. We were all holding out hope that they would figure it out. But when the mother company couldn't figure it out, we all knew that we were in it for the long haul. So it has taken a toll on revenue, period. Ticket sales for any company will be one of the highest-grossing lines of contributed revenue in a budget, in addition to philanthropy.
What has become very important for Fort Worth Opera is forging, solidifying, and fostering those relationships with our donors. We are really making sure that we tend to those needs and rely heavily on institutional funding from private and public foundations and corporations. Most of them are able to give more funding and release some of the restrictions around funding. So as we look at the rest of this fiscal year, we are being very creative with fundraising campaigns and being very attentive to what is happening in the industry in terms of new initiatives to monetize and leverage the content that we're putting online.
We would like to offer more content to engage folks in a membership subscription model. We've all been doing it for years. We all have Hulu, Netflix, and whatever. It is very translatable for opera. It makes so much sense. When you think about not being in a hall, you have to write off ticket sales in terms of what that means for production revenue. And you have to get creative, creative, creative around how you can drive revenue into your company.
That is what we are doing here at Fort Worth with things like offering more content through the Green Room. We will start outdoor performances. And we are hoping to host events virtually that still make people feel like they're in the room with us and feel like they are able to take part in the likeness of singing.
It is about being innovative in ways that you can engage with your donors, your patrons, and ticket holders while still offering them that artistic value. And it is about keeping it real and doing the most with what you've got, being unapologetically scrappy about it and everybody pitching in—and being mindful about how you utilize the resources of your staff. For example, where can you transfer the energies of someone who might have been a box office person? Maybe there is something else that they're great at and could fill a gap in another department because you need all of the minds and hands you have to make this work, especially when it is not so automatic.
The convenience and privilege of going to the theater is something that I think we will all realize we took advantage of. As companies, we are negligent of that as well, in programming a season and taking advantage of what we thought were automatic streams of revenue. Now we have to think, what are some of these new streams of revenue?
TB: What would you say is the hardest lesson that you've learned in this situation?
AB: I won't say it is the hardest lesson, but a very strong lesson that I learned is that we are all disposable. And I say that because I know people who have lost their jobs because of this pandemic. They were furloughed, laid off, or had their positions cut. People are in the position of making tough decisions; paying bills, mortgages, rent. They have lost their health insurance in the middle of a health crisis. We are all disposable, and that is a tough lesson. We are all at the mercy of the decision of someone else.
TB: Let's turn to the positive side. What would you say is the thing that you're most grateful for in this experience?
AB: I am most grateful for the opportunity to be at this company. As a Texan, Fort Worth Opera has always been our affair. I wanted to sing for the McCammon Voice Competition and all those things when growing up. I am grateful for the blessing of having taken the steps that I took as a person, individual, singer, and arts administrator that have led me to this time. There is a silver lining everywhere, so I say my silver lining to this pandemic is where I am sitting right now.
TB: Something you have talked about a few times is young artists. What would you say to them about getting through this pandemic?
AB: I was a young artist during my own pandemic, which was the economic recession . I would say to them, do not lose sight of your goal. Do not lose the warmth and heart for your passion. And be realistic with what your expectations are and what success means and looks like to you.
TB: In closing up our conversation, first, is there anything else that you would like to add to our conversation from today?
AB: This art form that we are a part of as singers and classical artists is an amazing brother- and sisterhood. There are not many of us out there. Let's be honest. We see the same people on playbills year after year. So it is a small gathering of us. The industry is small, and our world inside of it is small in. Within that, we have a huge responsibility to be gracious and kind to one another, accept one another, and be leaders in using our voices—not just our singing voices—but our platforms to help those who are coming after us.
In addition, we are also responsible for using our voices and platforms to provide opportunities for those who are most often historically marginalized and left out of the conversation. It is our responsibility to do that. I take that responsibility very seriously, and it is a responsibility that I will make good on and forge ahead with and within this company. I will continue to be an industry leader—not by written words, but by actions.
TB: So in closing up, we have to end positively. What is your Netflix, Amazon Prime, or video binge recommendation?
AB: Lovecraft Country, bottom line. Find yourself a login and watch it! It is coming to an end, and I think there are maybe one or two episodes left. It is phenomenal. Someone ought to make it into an opera. And when you do, you should call me so that we can put it up on the stage because it is masterful storytelling, history lessons. And it is so entertaining. But if you don't have HBO, my next one is a Hulu favorite, The Handmaid's Tale, which is an opera and a fabulous book as well.
TB: Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your thoughts with me today.
FWO Green Room links:
•Music Speaks: The Language of Poetry & Libretti Workshop with Lucy Yates: https://youtu.be/W3qXsywYCWU
•Jennifer Rowley’s Virtual Audition Intensive (Part I) with Russell Thomas, Brian Jagde, Alex Fletcher & Jim Barbato: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krSXcJsTuT0&t=2s
•Luis Alejandro Orozco Performs Denise Frohman's "Borders" & Irving Berlin's "God Bless America” - https://youtu.be/L5v4EQGwbx0
•FWO Lesley Resident Artist Darius Thomas - “No Puede Ser”: https://youtu.be/8G9OLCJ-lZQ
•FWO Lesley Resident Artist Gabrielle Gilliam - “Quando m’en vo”: https://youtu.be/iSEQ-Z6-TnI
•Soprano Devon Guthrie Sings Debussy's "Chevaux de Bois”: https://youtu.be/3Gtn2s3wpnQ
•Soprano Vanessa Becerra sings "La Flor de la Canela" in Honor of Chabuca Granda: https://youtu.be/7bETudwNvL4
•Emily Fons & Janna Ernst - New Perspective Mini-Concert: https://youtu.be/cXr9Vaogz3U
•Martin Bakari - “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” from Charlie Parker’s Yardbird: https://youtu.be/P4OD9Pbl3pI
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. 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.