As a teenager, Afton Battle discovered a unique passion for classical music.
She quickly carved out an accomplishing career as a young operatic singer before switching to the administrative side and working in the nation’s most notable theatrical cities, Chicago and New York City.
“I had a long stint as a singer on stage,” Battle, 40, said. “When I decided to leave, I really wanted to find my way back into the performing arts as an administrator but was having a very difficult time getting my foot in the door with all my experience as a singer and my background. So, I really had to start from the bottom up.”
Now one of the most prominent leaders in the Fort Worth arts scene, Battle is the first woman and first Black general director to lead the 75-year-old Fort Worth Opera.
Born in Lubbock and raised in El Paso and Amarillo, she graduated early from Palo Duro High School in Amarillo. When studying for a business degree at Amarillo College, Giuseppe Verdi’s “La Traviata” — the first live opera she attended — inspired her to seriously pursue her musical career.
Battle had only just begun to embark on her musical gifts a few years prior, when Amarillo Opera Founder Mila Gibson heard her sing at a local Juneteenth pageant and offered lessons to refine the soprano vocals she had cultivated in her pastor father’s church choir.
She returned to the Lone Star State when she was hired by the Fort Worth Opera’s board of trustees in September 2020, ending the company’s six-month search for a new leader. The former general director, Tuomas Hiltunen, resigned suddenly in January.
Battle’s colleagues, Joe Illick and Sheran Keyton, said her prior experience — both on the stage and behind the scenes — makes her a tenacious industry leader.
Now holding the reins to Fort Worth Opera for more than a year, Battle is “unique in the way that she leads the company,” Keyton, who has worked there for nearly 16 years, said.
“She comes from both worlds,” Keyton said. “She brings this perfect mix of being able to relate to the artists, while also managing the company.”
Keyton, whose role is to oversee educational programs and community engagement, said Battle is a “strategic planner,” who seeks success on all ends — from each program to how the company serves others to the staff’s talents and work.
As the company’s artistic director, Illick most collaborates with Battle and highlighted her “youthful and radiant presence.”
“She’s a beautiful person. She brings a real joy and love for this art form,” Illick said. “She is a fantastic leader, and she has pushed every one of us to be better than we are.
“I would also say having a Black woman at the helm of the opera company and being the only Black woman who’s a general director of an American opera company is incredibly special.”
Since joining late last year, Battle seeks to fully restore the company’s pandemic losses. She said she also wants to better serve communities of color in Fort Worth.
“As a Black woman, I did not see very much representation of myself on stage,” Battle said. “So, it is really important for me to have that representation to highlight all communities. I want them to celebrate the rich history and culture of their communities by giving them a platform to have their voices heard.”
Last month, the Fort Worth Opera brought “Entre Amigos” to Artes de la Rosa, and soon will showcase a “Night of Black Excellence” at I.M. Terrell High School.
“By bringing these innovative productions, engagement, showcases and concerts to the people of Fort Worth in what might be a ‘non-traditional venue,’ they’ll see it’s not always Bass Hall,” Battle said. “It is also churches. It is also community centers. It is also parking lots. It is also the Botanic Garden. It is also Fort Worth Public Library. If we are in every ZIP code and every community, when we do invite them to Bass Hall, it won’t be foreign to them.”
Battle also continues to support the company’s existing programs that welcome other often-underserved communities, Keyton said, including the programs that provide more accessible performance education to emerging talents, as well as its sensory- and dementia-friendly programs.
“One of the things that I love about Afton versus other leaders is she that she came in and allowed us to do the work in the community that our mission committed to doing,” Keyton said. “Having a leader that speaks the words, and also follows through with action is immeasurable — for me and for the company.”
Battle hopes the company’s established footing as a cultural arts institution by late next year and that Fort Worth Opera is known as “the people’s company.”
“They will be used to us,” she said. “They will know who we are. And they will be excited that we are here.”