US opera chief quits amid loud Battle cries

US opera chief quits amid loud Battle cries


norman lebrecht

October 26, 2022

The first Black women ever to run a large US opera company has quit as general director of Fort Worth Opera.

Afton Battle was appointed to the post just two years ago. In a parting email she said: ‘We have built The People’s Company. I set out to be dynamic in my leadership and effect change and I feel I have successfully done that.’

But in a midsummer fundraising statement she gave warning of her discontent: ‘Y’all know the challenges of being Black in this world. 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.’

Battle had no prior experience of running an opera company.

Report here.


  • Andrew Sherman says:

    Opera is in peril. The end of the record/cd industry as it was, and then covid has made a minority art form even less significant and fighting for its survival. We need people running opera companies that know and love opera, know the repertoire, know how to get the best out of singers, directors and musicians, and how the very complex workings of an opera company work. It would be nice if these people came from a range of backgrounds, but we have to have people running opera companies that are opera people. The Met, ENO and now Fort Worth are examples of where the experiment of putting people in charge who don’t get opera completely have put their companies, and in the case of the Met, the whole opera world in great peril. Please let’s make the opera great first, make opera companies great and places of artistic and economic safety and then hope a diverse and forward looking leadership can push it even further forward.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Simple: get better singers and stop letting charlatans come up with whatever strange productions concepts they feel like doing. I know, much easier said than done.

      • NotToneDeaf says:

        Oh please – Fort Worth Opera isn’t exactly on the cutting edge of avant garde staging interpretations. And who are the “better singers” that you think would resonate and sell additional tickets in Fort Worth? How many of their productions have you seen that leads you to think they have sub-par singers?

        • Tiredofitall says:

          Not for nothin’, Beverly Sills sang several performances in Fort Worth very early in her career. She felt such gratitude for those opportunities that in the final year of her career she made one last appearance. She said “I always pay my debts.”

          Let’s also remember a 22-year-old Placido Domingo sang in Lucia with Lily Pons (her final operatic performance) and continued to return for eight more operas.

          My favorite memory was Patricia Brooks in Traviata. Fabulous artist.

          All ancient history, perhaps, and the opera was always second to the Fort Worth Symphony (and the Kimball Museum and even Casa Mañana), but it suited a city the size of Fort Worth, especially with the Dallas Opera only an hour away.

          And on and on. Well, until now.

        • MWnyc says:

          I took Barry Guerrero to be referring more to the Met and ENO (both of which Andrew Sherman mentioned) than to Fort Wrth Opera.

    • anon says:

      “but we have to have people running opera companies that are opera people.”

      Is there a reason you think Black people can’t be “opera people?”

      • Lydia says:

        To anon…
        That was never said, at least not before you said it. Think about that. YOU said it. So don’t be so eager to be offended.

  • RW2013 says:

    What language is “y’all”?

    • lamed says:

      I will bet my life that it is the first statement in the entire history of opera, nay, in the entire history of classical music, made by an opera director, nay, made by any administrator, to use “y’all” in either its written or oral form.

      She claims to speak for the challenges of Black women. Marian Anderson, Leontyne Price, Shirley Verrett, Jessye Norman would never have let “y’all” escape their mouths.

      • G says:

        “Y’all” is very typical in Texas, in case you live under a rock. Would you prefer your opera chiefs address the board with RP english? I’m sure that would go over massively well with the donors of Ye Olde Confederacy.

        • LNCVINC says:

          This usage has nothing to do with that. It’s performative woke jargon, popular with affluent liberals; an entirely unconvincing affection of down-home charm. Same with ‘folks’… or even ‘folx’.

      • RVS Lee says:

        Please take a moment to reconsider the idea that in order to succeed (professionally) women of color must abandon the use of (regional, not ‘racial’ – although it shouldn’t make a difference) vernacular in conversation or social media. I, for one, find the concept profoundly racist.

      • Hayne says:

        She used bad grammer. When addressing more than one person in Texas, it’s “all y’all.”

        • KP says:

          Do Texans also use the word grammer instead of grammar?

        • MuddyBoots says:

          I love it when the spelling-challenged try to correct the “grammar” of a person who is speaking perfect colloquial, regional English. Y’all is a well and widely-accepted colloquial phrase, one even cherished in the South, there is no possible excuse for bad spelling. Another foreign troll, trying to tell Americans how to speak American-English?

      • Leroy says:

        Sho nuff!!! Someone that has never sat through an entire opera, is complaining how hard she had to work to make an opera organization successful? It sounds like her excellence isn’t appreciated where she knows so little about the medium where everyone else is so highly trained. Fraud excellence.

      • MWnyc says:

        Leontyne Price was from Mississippi and Jessye Norman was from Georgia; Shirley Verrett grew up in Los Angeles but was born in New Orleans.

        “Y’all” most certainly escaped from their mouths numerous times, even if they never used the word in interviews.

    • Chris Wilford says:

      Texan. First thing my mother in law taught me.

    • Jerome Hoberman says:

      “Y’all” is universal, all-but-standard, colloquial Southern U.S. speech, neither Black nor white.

  • M McGrath says:

    So WHY did she give up and not stay the course? WHY sabotage the company by quitting mid-season? I have no empathy here.
    If these kinds of appointments are to do the trick, work, be successful, one has GOT to see them through. Otherwise, nothing will change, the change agent leaves no footprint, and stereotypes are further reinforced. Maybe that generation is just too soft, too full of set expectations, too entitled to be a true pioneer? Marie Curie, had she quit after two years as a woman in science and regular employment, would have left ZERO footprint. So maybe the selection process for boundary-breaking individuals to such key posts has to have more than superficial criteria? After all, Marie Curie, did know her science.
    And, finally, in the process of this social experiment which made everybody feel so self-satisfied when it happened, who bears the brunt of the damage? The company, the artists, music. If you want to serve music, get dedicated, strong, qualified people (of any ilk) involved.

    • Casual Observer says:

      Why didn’t she stay? Because the Board said “quit or we fire you.”

      Fort Worth Opera has a shaky history. Nobody wanted the job, I bet. So, they were stuck with unqualified candidates and likely not many. She hadn’t run a company. And her LinkedIn profile shows she’s never stuck around other companies where she’s worked very long. Was bound to happen. Especially if the board didn;t agree with her direction.

  • Anthony Sayer says:

    Maybe she was just useless.

  • BP says:

    « 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 »

    That’s not gonna cut it, y’all.

  • Gustavo says:

    I picked up a story on BR Klassik this morning about a female opera singer of no colour who was accused for dressing up as Aida with an Afro-style wig (interpreted as “black-facing”) and posting a photo of herself on “social” media.


    How shall one react adequately to female people of colour who iron and bleach their hair to look “Aryan”?

    Just look away?

  • Singeril says:

    First of all, I wouldn’t call Ft. Worth a “large opera company”…It isn’t even in the top two in Texas. The company has had staffing issues for some time. There were many that saw her appointment as a major mistake. I’m not surprised at all that is is leaving so soon. This was easily predicted.

  • sammy says:

    It’s not Afton’s fault that when she landed at the airport, got off the plane, and only there and then did she realize that Fort Worth, Texas was white and conservative.

    And when she drove to the opera house, she was shocked to learn that opera was even whiter, more male, and more conservative.

    It’s the fault of the Board for not disclosing those relevant facts to her before she took the job.

    It’s also the fault of Black sororities and the Black entertainment industry that when she approached them for fundraising, that they did not prioritize white European music from the 1800s to give to better the Black community.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      I believe Ms. Battle is a native of Amarillo, Texas. She would have been well aware of the culture in her home state, even before she got off the plane.

  • drummerman says:

    Perhaps one of the reasons she was hired was that the organization could demonstrate its interest in diversity. I do not mean that pejoratively, just saying. She had zero experience running an arts organization.

    Did she or did she not discuss her artistic ideas/visions with the search committee during the search process? Hard to believe she would have sprung them on the company “cold turkey” after being hired. If she did, that would speak to her inexperience.

    Perhaps Fort Worth needs to have a two-person structure, like so many other opera companies have, ie. artistic director and managing director.

  • Miriam Fournet says:


    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Yes!! It sounds infinitely better than the endlessly foul expletives found in the Mozart Letters, ed. Anderson!!

      I suspect the woman in question here is firing a shot across the bow of Texans. That is her right.

  • Tiredofitall says:

    Who couldn’t see this coming?

    Ms. Battle’s resume indicated few qualifications for “general manager” of an opera company despite the MANY relatively short-term positions she has held. By the age of 41 (probably less than 20 working years) to have held six jobs of responsibility plus consulting for several arts organizations is a lot by any measure. Who on the Fort Worth Opera Board didn’t see that red flag?

    I’ve come across several people like this in my career; they talk a good game and can’t master the basic requirements of the job. Then they move on after a short time, generally when they hit the inevitable wall, always with an excuse that can’t be politically argued. Clever by half.

    “The People’s Company”. What c**p, y’all.

  • amazonian says:

    I’d like to see some in-depth report about Battle’s tenure and her reasons to quit.

    Most of the comments so far cannot hide (or do not even bother to) a longing for opera “as it was” in some idealized past. A few seem happy to show their prejudices.

    The only solution to opera’s
    troubles, it seems, would be to go back in time. But that’s impossible. Regression is not an option.

    The good old times were good only for some people in some places. And certainly that was not the case for Blacks in the US. Y’all know that, for sure.

    So, there is no way to restore those awfully selective good old.times. And there should be no yearning for it.

    Good music, good singing, are values to be cherished, of course. But the very understanding (and practice) of these words change with the times. History shows it.

    We should move along and change too. The only way to.preserve anythimg, be it an art form or its institutions, is by embracing change. The rest is conservative noise.

  • Jobim75 says:

    An other victim crushed by a racist and mysogynist system????? An horrible system……which put her where she was…..not easy to be competent……

  • caranome says:

    Oh, I’m black, I’m woman, you know how hard that is vs. the white patriarchy? Whereas when u r hired, those are the exact ( and only) criteria for celebration n virtue signalling, breathless calls for breakthroughs in diversity, accessibility, blah blah blah. Know anything about opera, passionate about opera? Nah, that’s not important. Can’t have it both ways, y’all!

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    As one who lives out here in Fort Worth, Texas, I’d like to extend my personal thanks to the commenters on this blog for their helpfully uninformed perspectives on the trajectory of Fort Worth Opera and the effectiveness of its most recent artistic/general director. As I’m sure you (don’t) know, FWO’s previous director, Tuomi Hiltunen, resigned after just two years in his post, publicly citing “different visions” between himself and the company’s board over its artistic direction. Before that, its longtime director Darren Woods — who did great work to bring attention to a broader and more contemporary repertoire.

    Under their tenures, FWO mounted productions of works by Mark Adamo, Astor Piazzolla, Kevin Puts, Peter Eötvös, David T. Little, Jake Heggie, Philip Glass, not to mention operas by upcoming composers and of course, the bread-and-butter standard literature.

    This city of nearly 1 million inhabitants is also home to the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, and two nearby symphony orchestras — the Dallas Symphony and the hometown Fort Worth Symphony, now led by its newly installed director Robert Spano. Once upon a time — about 30 years ago when I first observed it as a visitor from Los Angeles — the Cliburn Competition was a mecca for music journalists, artist managers and concert presenters from around the country and internationally. In those days, the local newspaper — the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — had vibrant arts and music coverage. But a succession of music critic firings (we have very wealthy patrons here with a low tolerance for objective critical analysis) and a decimated revenue stream for local journalism have left the city with virtually no music coverage. The paper hasn’t had a permanent music critic for a decade.

    So how about we try and extend a bit of mercy and gratitude to our put-upon artistic leaders who are attempting to bring an expansive range of repertoire before the public? As for me, I’m heading down to Houston this weekend where the friendly neighborhood Grand Opera is mounting the first major American production of Ethel Smyth’s “The Wreckers.”

    See y’all down here sometime!

    • Porteroso says:

      But are they wrong? She seems to have been a train wreck, which doesn’t preclude the possibility if the board also having been a train wreck. Was she successful in any way you can articulate?

      It does seem to be a short tenure. I’m not buying that she is a victim. She took the job willingly. Maybe being a first was all that mattered to her and the organization. Now moving on….

    • Knowing Clam says:

      JFK tanked FWO’s finances and DK Woods went to board members asking them to reappropriate their gifts to cover the loss. And then there is the kissing of staff members. I was close by. Not pretty. Pity. He had done some recent work before.

      Still, Ms. Battle wasn’t an ideal choice.

      • John Marks says:


        What did I miss?

        OK, I looked it up. There was an opera about JFK. Yikes.

        Funny, when I was a music student, I sketched out an opera about JFK, in the style of Messiaen, to be performed at an Early Music Festival in the 24th century (um, in the far future, for those numerically challenged). Half opera, half science fiction.

        The climax of my libretto was JFK’s late-night soliloquy on the sentence “My father always told us to always get as much ***** as we could.” (Which is an edited but accurate quote.)

        The phrase “My father” took five minutes to get out… JFK was supposed to be seen to be looping it, to be emotionally stuck. In a nod to Messaien, the entire sentence takes 45 minutes.

        Ah, to be young and creative… and barmy.

        all my best,


    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      I should very much like to visit Texas but time has got the better of me. My son met your Governor Abbott about 4 years ago on trip with Australian government leadership.

  • anonymous says:

    Interview with Battle last year

    In the interview she says she became interested in opera after being taken to a performance of la traviata.

    Later in the interview:
    “… you have to create programming and initiatives that speak to the communities you desire to serve… I can’t go into any community and say ‘Well, I don’t know what it is that you want, but I’m going to give you XY & Z’…”


  • Karden says:

    A major problem is most people downplay their social-political attitudes. So progressives do a lot of murmuring and conservatives do a lot of murmuring. Moderates are caught in the middle. But through the years, they’ve felt more and more progressive. Eventually it’s one giant murmur fest of sly looks, wink-winking and exasperation.

  • Couperin says:

    “Hey y’all, I’m out this bitch!”

  • KMC says:

    It all starts with educating our children. The children of all of us. Starting with the basics of music in grade schools, teaching children how to play musical instruments at a very young age, teaching them in high school how and why the should take the time to learn classical music and opera – as well as rap, jazz and other (often) culturally formative types of music. Is it too much to hope for that children of marginalized communities and nations could one day compete at all universities for scholarships in music? Ideally, Music will really start to be seen as a necessary part of Education, not just as Entertainment. At this difficult time in our history, is there anything more important than investing in our children – other than climate change? Our children, who now communicate across boundaries, have only one common language: Music. As a generation, we can be proud of ourselves if we can leave our children a better world. Let’s start with addressing climate change and the furtherance of the one language that is globally unifying, culturally revitalizing and spiritually rejuvenating. You can not build an opera house or symphony hall by starting with the roof. We have to build up from the young – everywhere.

    • Tiredofitall says:

      Funny thing is that Fort Worth has (or maybe at this point, had) a vibrant music program in its public schools, K-12. During the formative years of the symphony, opera, and ballet, music education was hardly ignored in public education.

  • T says:

    Considering FWO had leadership challenges and financial challenges that pre-dated Afton, maybe instead of saying she needed x years of experience we could look at the toxic culture that was already preventing any meaningful change for the company?

    The funny thing I’ve noticed in opera as a is that some (many) of you will overlook the major failings that have existed for decades (and to this day continue to threaten the art form) and only shift the blame to people generally trying to explore the accessibility of opera. Opera has been declining in popularity for decades; you don’t get to blame the people trying to lift it into broader relevance for that.

  • Madmartigan says:

    There is a leadership problem in the states. There are individuals who want to lead without the skills, expertise, or a record of experience. I’m not just talking about our upcoming elections. Most opera companies in the US are mid-sized to small and do not have the benefit of a large staff. When a vacancy occurs in a General Director position, there is a lack of qualified candidates with competency and experience in administration, governance, finance, and development. On top of that, there must be a strong understanding of repertoire, music, and theatrical production.

    In a smaller company, the General Director takes on a larger role when there isn’t a large staff to prepare and execute a season. Having ideas and enthusiasm is great but there is experience and knowledge needed in these leadership positions. Facing the aftermath of the pandemic, companies are facing the lingering virus with production artists and a growing number of vital behind the scenes staff who refuse to earn low wages compared to company leadership. With these challenges, the leaders of today are expected to deal with greater challenges than their predecessors. What is the solution? Hard to say, the systemic issues in the classical music field have been festering for decades and now have devastating consequences.

    I would like to conclude with a word or two about inclusion. I’ve been to performances at the Bass Hall in Fort Worth during the Spring opera festival. The audience does not reflect the 2020 Census of Forth Worth; it is older and white. If you are going to make a bold change to engage underserved demographics, bring everyone on for that change. A full force change in programming clearly did not win the board over and like it or not, they oversee the company and its mission. Sadly, boards are made up of volunteers who make contributions to the company and have the ear to patronage. The comments of the Board and Music Director emeritus paint a picture that the now former General Director was not measured in their approach to including the company’s base and a substantial new audience.

  • Save the MET says:

    Yeah, no. The Fort Worth Opera supported by the Bass and the Kimbell families and also by Van Cliburn is a white audience, no matter how you slice it. Her only opera this year is Aida in concert form, the rest of the programming is, A Night of Black Excellence, Stand Up a afro-centric opera, a black centric concert called “Of Thee I sing” and a voice competition. Apparently, there was no one on the board monitoring this. Hard enough to get a white audience to support opera, but try getting an African American audience to support opera, the company goes into bankruptcy. It was well and good to hire a minority to run the company, as long as she played to the existing audience. However, a giant 360 and go after a market you never had, nor ever will have was foolish and now she’s gone. If this company is to survive, they need to get a miracle worker in there that can change the 2023-2024 season to go back to what the supporters of the company really want to hear.

  • musiclover says:

    As a former FWO Board member, contributor, and patron, I can only sum up this pathetic exercise in virtue signaling with the following:

    Go woke, go broke.

  • I Love Jesus says:

    Most of all y’all sound uneducated, racist, and have been living under a white supremist rock. You cannot fix a company that was seemingly already broken. No assets, no endowment, no money and hundreds of thousand of debt. All of which is public information (if you look hard enough). Poor board leadership, if any, is a disaster in the making. After DKW left the company in financial ruins, it was hand to mouth from then on out. Afton was foolish for taking that job. There’s no way she should’ve thought that an old established white institution would be welcoming to her. They hired her in the moment to appear to be on the side of diversity. And thought she would fall into place. The probably wanted to see her fail. By the looks of their finances, she actually raised a significant amount of money which got them out of deep debt (again, public if you look hard enough).

    It will be interesting to see who they hire next, because who in the hell would want a company that has had so much financial trouble. Likely someone who has no experience running an opera company … you see how this is an unbreakable cycle.