The American history of opera dates back to the 18th century, and throughout its history, Black musicians have shaped an art form that tells a story through music and singing.
"The past has completely colored and shaped who we are, but as a people, it has shaped what it is that we feel, that I feel, is important to bring to the forefront which is our history, our culture, our movement, our vibrancy through the arts, through music, through gospel music, jazz, blues, even country music. And that has a place in classical music. We come through this birth of being a musician through all these different genres and you happen to just end up as an opera singer," said Afton Battle who was hired in late 2020 to lead Fort Worth Opera.
The classically trained singer is a Texas native and the first woman and first Black general director in the company's history.
"We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. We stand on the shoulders of H.T Burleigh. We stand on the shoulders of Florence Price, of Margaret Bonds, our legends and ancestors who are no longer with us. And then we also stand on the shoulders of our colleagues and artists who are still with us but who had to come before us to get to this point. Anthony Davis who wrote tremendous operas about Malcolm X. He wrote Central Park Five and won a Pulitzer. Anthony has been writing opera for 30-plus years. And so not only do we stand on his shoulders. We stand shoulder to shoulder with him," Battle said.
- Burleigh (1886-1949) is considered America's first prominent Black composer.
- Price (1887-1953) is regarded as the first African American female composer to gain national status.
- Bonds (1913-1972) was a pianist, composer and the first Black guest to play with the Chicago symphony.
- Davis (1971- ) premiered his Pulitzer Prize-winning opera X: The Life and Times of Malcolm X at the American Music Theater Festival in 1985.
As Battle planned the 2022-23 season of FWO, she continued a commitment to being "The People's Company." Her goal from day one has been to present operatic experiences that speak to and engage with the community.
"This work doesn't end. It continues to evolve. It continues to deepen. And it continues to grow. And we have to be steady in the race, and we have to be able to put down our heels and markers in what we believe," Battle said.
"That's what I sought to do in the 76th season is show the community of Fort Worth, yes, we are an opera company. Yes, we do mainstage grand opera but we also recognize and see our community for the vibrant, colorful, diverse community that it is. And it's important to me that everyone sees themselves within this community in this company, that they see themselves on stage, that they see themselves in our staff, on our board which means they see themselves in our audience."
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The season opens on Oct. 21 with performances of Noches de Latinidad: El Fuego de Una Mujer (Latin Nights: The Fire of a Woman) with Catalina Cuervo and Eduardo Rojas, and a one-night-only performance of Noches de Zarzuela, a celebratory Hispanic Heritage Month Concert at Artes de la Rosa Cultural Center for the Arts at the Rose Marine Theater.
In November the spotlight shines on Metropolitan Opera Star Karen Slack in concert at the new Van Cliburn Concert Hall at Texas Christian University (TCU), titled My Sister’s Keeper and features award-winning pianist Michelle Cann.
In December, the company will partner with the Fort Worth Botanic Garden and the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) for a return of Amahl and the Night Visitors.
Then in January, FWO will present the Southern premiere of Damien Geter’s symphonic work An African American Requiem at the Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU.
The piece will be followed by a revival of the company’s Black History Month concert, A Night of Black Excellence, to be performed once again at Fort Worth ISD’s historic I.M. Terrell Academy for STEM and VPA in February.
FWO’s season culminates with a concert staging of Verdi’s Aida with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra (FWSO) at Van Cliburn Concert Hall at TCU, and the annual Hattie Mae Lesley Resident Artist Showcase.
"This is a piece that has seen some controversy in our industry where they have an Aida who is not a woman of color and they darken her skin. Similarly to Othello. So in casting this entire opera as it would have been possibly performed in northern Africa during the time. I wanted to have, of course, a Black Aida," Battle said.
Prior to the presentation of Aida, FWO will also host a symposium series on April 13 and 15, 2023, that will address racial equity in the arts.
"This two-day symposium will be held with a wonderful panel of educators and scholars, talking and digging into some of these conversations that we haven't had publicly in our art form which is why wouldn't you cast a role or a piece like Aida exactly as I described it to you," Battle said. "Why are we not telling these stories from points of view in which we are able to show and see our community fully represented?"
To further the mission of representation, the FWO board of trustees last year approved a set of principles committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and access.
“Over the course of many months, a diverse group of Fort Worth Opera staff and board members, artists, DEIA professionals, and community leaders have worked to create a meaningful statement of principles to guide the company and move Fort Worth Opera forward in a more inclusive and courageous direction, as well as bring opera performance and education to as many as possible in the most authentic and accessible way,” said board trustee Ebony Rose in a news release.