On October 23, Susan Kander’s chamber opera dwb (driving while black) receives its New York premiere — via virtual performance — presented by Baruch Performing Arts Center in Manhattan. The 45-minute, one-woman monodrama originally premiered in fall 2018 at the Lawrence Arts Center in Kansas. With stage direction by Chip Miller, the production features original premiere performers – soprano and librettist Roberta Gumbel, with cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello of the New Morse Code ensemble. The virtual medium was produced by Four/Ten Media, and will continue streaming through October 29.
Kander shares some thoughts about the first New York performance. “Roberta Gumbel and I wrote this short, intense work over three years ago. We never imagined the crisis point the country would arrive at this year. Back in March, the New York premiere was cancelled due to Covid-19 on ‘Day One’ of production week. When Baruch invited us to realize the opera as a video for streaming presentation, the DWB team together decided to negotiate the pandemic constraints as safely as possible and make the video because the times demanded it. We went to the Lawrence Arts Center to make the video. We sent a handful of people — the three performers and two audio engineers for two days, then three performers and two video artists on a different two days — in this very large theater. Masked and distanced! Very courageous on everyone’s part! The result is an iteration of the original production that we also could not have imagined.”
Kander continues about her collaboration with Roberta Gumbel. “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.” Kander has previously written her own texts to earlier operas; however, she and Gumbel both knew the libretto would have to be written by Gumbel. “The story is mine,” Gumbel explains, “with other pieces thrown in. 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?’”