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Susan KANDER (b.1957)
dwb (driving while black) (2018)
Roberta Gumbel (soprano)
New Morse Code
rec. 2020, Lawrence Arts Center, Lawrence, Kansas
ALBANY TROY1858 [41:09]

The death of George Floyd on 25 May 2020 brought global attention to systemic racism and police misconduct in America. It was hardly that one incident, however, that ignited the long-smoldering fuse; even the world of opera was fanning the flame. Composers and librettists had internalized the issues and were already putting pen to paper, creating powerful stories of young black males in twenty-first century America.

One that has garnered attention is Blue, with music by Jeanine Tesori and libretto by Tazewell Thompson, which centers on the hopes and fears of a young black couple as they raise a son in Harlem. The father, a police officer, does all he can to steer his son in the right direction, but he is killed by a fellow cop. Blue premiered at the Glimmerglass Festival in 2019 and received the Music Critics Association of North America 2020 Award for Best New Opera. It is slated to be produced by companies across the country.

dwb (driving while black) traverses similar territory, although from the perspective of a single mother. She is terrified that her son’s thirst for freedom, in this case something as mundane as obtaining his driver’s license, is a ticket to trouble. As she tells him, it is not a question of if, but only when, he will come face to face with the police — his just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Something that neither of them can predict nor control.

Susan Kander, whose music has been heard across the United States, Europe, China, Russia, Australia and South Africa, composed dwb in 2018 for soprano Roberta Gumbel and New Morse Code, an instrumental duo made up of cellist Hannah Collins and percussionist Michael Compitello. The opera was Kander’s response to conversations over coffee with Gumbel in which her friend expressed anxiety over her son getting his driver’s license. Gumbel wasn’t Kander’s first choice as a librettist, but as it turned out there was no one better to tell her story.

After premiering in 2019 at the Lawrence Art Center in Kansas, dwb was scheduled to be performed in March 2020 at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, New York. One day before the start of production week, the city went into lockdown. It was a brave and crazy idea at the time to film the opera, but that is what happened. The digital premiere took place in October at Baruch and was extended due to popular demand. This release captures the original cast. The distinction is already necessary, as a film version starring soprano Karen Slack for UrbanArias premiered in April 2021.

The scenes play out in the family car: a young couple enthralled with the birth of their son, a first-time mother fretting over the safety of a car seat, consoling her son after the death of his father from cancer, the young man’s thirst for independence. Indignities that come from merely being a person of color are woven throughout the libretto.

One of the most poignant scenes is the woman struggling to tell her son that the worst day of his life, the day he lost his father, is also the worst in hers. Another is when she sings a lullaby to him based on the words that her father told her every morning, ‘You, my beautiful, brown boy … are not who they see.’ She later repeats the words to her teenage son, but the melody is now fractured and tense. She loves him more than life itself, but is unable to protect him as she did when he was a baby.

Kander centered the score on the vibraphone because it offers so many different timbres and durations of sound and easily provides a harmonic bed. Compitello hits, swipes, rubs, blows and kicks over 20 instruments, while Collins plays not only the cello but also the toy piano, tambourine and other noise-making devices. There are also the sounds of balloons swooshing through the air as well juba, or ham-boning, in which Compitello and Collins use their bodies as instruments. For all the special effects, however, it is a lyrical score of great depth, beauty and feeling.

With her silverly soprano, Gumbel sings with an emotional range as wide and penetrating as the colors of her voice. She delivers news flashes matter of factly, but her dismay and disbelief are obvious. Joy and hope are voiced with the same passion as anger and fear.

Each of the three versions of dwb have their merits, but this recording is the purest of them. Kander’s structure emerges on this recording with greater clarity, as does the brilliance of her imaginative orchestration. Gumbel’s text is also heard to its full advantage, but that is to be expected considering that the remarkable work was written by and for her.

Rick Perdian

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