No Muting Allowed: Innovation & Resilience at Fort Worth Opera

Ask any leader of an arts organization what life has been like during the past year, and most will probably swear it has been one of the most demanding times of their lives.  Amidst cancellations, rescheduling, re-cancelling, waiting, re-planning, and then being prepared for everything to change again, groups have been constantly rethinking creative ways to deliver their product to a quarantined audience. And while the word “pivot” has been trending to the point of exhaustion, you won’t find it in the vocabulary of Fort Worth Opera’s General Director Afton Battle. “Fort Worth Opera hasn’t pivoted, we’ve adjusted,” she explains, referencing the expanse of virtual and community programming the company ramped up a few months ago, including master classes and workshops. In the fall, they launched FWO GO, a mobile opera initiative, complementing their FWO Green Room, which provided more engagement opportunities with their supporters.

The public will see the company’s most ambitious project on Sunday, February 21 when they host their virtual star-studded benefit concert, A Night of Black Excellence: Past Present, and Future. “I just want everyone to know that a lot of hard work went into producing this event,” says FWO’s Manager of Education and Community Engagement Sheran Goodspeed Keyton, who, along with the company’s Founder of Appointed Productions Charles W. Bush, is producing and directing the event. “I want the audiences to see that there is so much untapped, underutilized, underappreciated, and underpraised talent in the opera world and beyond…Young people of color should see the possibilities of their life as an artist, and young people of non-color should see positive images to help balance out the negative ones which are so readily available.”

Coinciding with Black History Month, the concert is a mélange of music, dance and spoken word poetry honoring the contributions of local and international Black opera singers and artists. The lineup includes Audra Scott, currently Head of Vocal Studies at Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, a local favorite who will bring her international experience to the program. “Representation matters,” says Scott, who performs two songs, including the stirring African-American spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. “It is important to show talent and give opportunity to all, no matter their skin color,” she adds.

Collaborating with Fort Worth Opera for the first time is Kenneth Overton, a New York-based opera singer who plans to sing two art songs written by Black composers with text by Black poets. “Although our country celebrates Black History Month in February, I have been a champion of Black Music my entire career,” he says. “Any time I am able to uplift the contributions of Black musicians, it brings me great joy…Black History is American History, is World History. These artists and this music should be celebrated and uplifted all through the year. Music is healing, and through learning more about each other’s history, we can make impactful strides towards true unity.”

Since coming on board as General Director less than a year ago, Battle has worked to invest in DFW’s local talent by providing opportunities for them to create art in their own backyard, but also understands the value of establishing and strengthening relationships within the industry on a national and international level. Early in 2021, the company collaborated with the Metropolitan Opera and Coyote Drive-In to present three performances of The Met: Live in HD as part of FWO’s Moonlight Film Fest. The opportunity to present opera in a casual and socially distanced space for patrons in the comfort of their cars was a neighborly way of reminding the public that the company was anything but shuttered. “It also shows our community that FWO is not stuffy,” Battle says. “We are not an elite company that only wants you to come down to Bass Hall to see us onstage.”

Another new partnership comes in March when FWO joins Opera San Jose to stream a film version of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Three Decembers, starring mezzo-soprano Susan Graham, soprano Maya Kherani, and baritone Efrain Solis. The 90-minute chamber opera, based on Terrence McNally’s unpublished play, Some Christmas Letters, follows the dysfunctional relationship of a famous actress and her two adult children over the course of three Christmases, where resentments come to a boil and long-held secrets come to a head. “Audiences respond to this piece because it is honest and depicts some of the struggles of family life that we all know,” says FWO Artistic Director Joe Illick. “Jake is a master storyteller through his music; he lets you have your own feelings and reactions without pushing you.”

At a time when “You’re on mute” has practically become the pandemic catch-phrase during the unprecedented rise of virtual meetings, Illick has also teamed up with Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell to create a cleverly comedic Zoom opera about a book club navigating its way through new technology and quarantined life in general. “It also pushed us to find beauty in things as we come to terms with this alternate reality of online everything,” Battle points out. Illick and Campbell’s creative forces will shine again in late spring for a pop-up, drive-in screening of their family opera, Stone Soup. “Working together with Mark (Campbell) has been one of the most satisfying chapters of my creative life,” says Illick. “He says himself that he writes every libretto like a legal brief, focusing only on the points he wants to make, yet his characters all breathe life. When I write operas to Mark’s words, all I need to do is read his script through a few times and the characters come alive and start to sing to me.”

By late spring, the warmer temperatures and pleasant weather bring an ideal setting for enjoying opera in the open air through a number of live pop-up concerts throughout DFW as part of the FWO GO series. The benefits are two-fold: Bringing music to neighborhoods in a fun, engaging way via a flat-bed trailer stage, while also providing exposure and performance experience for the company’s stable of young artists. “Opera is passed on from generation to generation by hands-on learning and performance experience,” Illick explains. “It’s really like apprenticeship in the Middle Ages. This craft has to be lived to be learned, and many of our young artists have gone on to have careers in the opera business. Having these artists give public performances is more important than ever during this time when people are starved for live singing.” Additionally, in the spirit of championing the talents of FWO’s resident artists, they’ll present a free stream of the company’s Lesley Resident Artist Virtual Recital through the FWO Green Room in May.

There’s a proverb that necessity is the mother of innovation, and we have witnessed that among arts groups these past eleven months. Fort Worth Opera’s small but mighty team has turned roadblocks into gateways and opportunities for growth. On this call, they’re showing the world that they won’t be hitting the “mute” button.