The Des Moines Metro Opera (DMMO) brings to life Susan Kander’s chamber opera dwb (driving while black) for three performances in July 2023. Written with librettist and soprano Roberta Gumbel, the 45-minute work is scored for soprano, cello, and percussion. dwb premiered in 2018 at the Lawrence Arts Center in Kansas featuring Gumbel as the soloist and stage direction by Chip Miller. Miller returns to direct Gumbel in the Des Moines Metro Opera production.
“I first experienced the digital version of dwb (driving while black) in the early days of the pandemic,” shares Michael Egel, DMMO Linda Koehn General and Artistic Director. “I immediately knew it needed to be part of our lineup once we were safely back in the theatre. dwb presents a unique opportunity to display how opera can act as a conversation-starter and bridge-builder in our communities. Roberta Gumbel’s moving performances and the subsequent community conversations have increased awareness while promoting action steps we all can take to be part of the solution.”
Kander comments on her opera. “Roberta Gumbel and I wrote this short, intense work over three years ago. It was originally conceived as a song cycle but quickly morphed into a short, one-woman monodrama. dwb came about when I suddenly had three friends/colleagues on one faculty. Roberta had sung a lot of my music over the years, but this was a chance to start something from scratch together. We threw around several possible subjects, but dwb kept rising to the top in my own mind…Roberta had been sharing with me her concerns about her son having recently come of age to begin driving. Added to that, like other African-American parents, Roberta has worries I will never have about her son being profiled or targeted by police and ending up being arrested or worse.”
While Kander has previously written her own texts to earlier operas, both she and Gumbel knew the libretto had to be written by Gumbel, even though Gumbel hadn’t previously written one. “The story is mine,” Gumbel explains, “with other pieces thrown in. Singers are storytellers, but rarely do we get the opportunity to help create the stories we are telling. There are four chairs on stage, representing the four seats in a car. The baby starts out in back in a child-safety seat. When he’s old enough, he gets to ride up front. This is how time is marked. Eventually I teach him to drive. The narrative all leads up to, ‘How will I gather the courage to give him the keys to the car?’”
“The African American Museum of Iowa,” adds co-presenter Executive Director LaNisha Cassell, “is thrilled to partner with Des Moines Metro Opera for such a provocative storytelling performance as dwb (driving while black). This performance will move our audiences because of the talented artistry of Roberta Gumbel and Susan Kander, and it will resonate on such a deep and personal level for many. We are grateful to DMMO for this opportunity to showcase the Museum’s unapologetic demonstration of our mission to preserve and teach African American history.” In addition to the dwb performances, each event will feature a post-concert community talk-back session. For more details, click here.