“Singers are storytellers, but rarely do we get the opportunity to help create the stories we are telling.” And so, soprano and librettist Roberta Gumbel introduces us to Susan Kander’s new chamber opera DWB (*driving while black*). The opera premieres on November 17 at the Lawrence Arts Center in Lawrence, Kansas. Scored for soprano, cello, and percussion, the 50-minute work features a libretto by Gumbel, who will premiere it along with (fellow-University of Kansas professors) cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello, widely known as the duo New Morse Code. Back in March, the work received a staged reading at the University of Kansas’ Swarthout Recital Hall. The November 17 premiere features stage direction by Chip Miller, artistic associate at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre.
“DWB came about,” Kander shares “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. I have sons, but they grew up in New York so I never had to worry about them driving as teenagers. 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. I think it took a huge amount of courage on her part, but we settled on DWB.”
Kander then needed a libretto for DWB, which was originally conceived as a song cycle but quickly morphed into a short, one-woman monodrama. Kander had previously written her own texts to earlier operas; however, she and Gumbel both knew the libretto would have to be written by Gumbel. So, Kander asked Gumbel to write it, even though Gumbel had never done so. “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?’”