Chamber opera musicians explore autism in new work

Roberta Gumbel, Susan Kander.

LAWRENCE – The partnership between University of Kansas School of Music faculty member Roberta Gumbel and New York-based composer Susan Kander continues to blossom. The latest evidence of that will be the first workshop production of their new chamber opera, “Carry My Own Suitcase,” March 3-4 in the Robert Baustian Theatre in Murphy Hall.

It is the story of Roger, an autistic young man, and his family, including Billy, Roger’s older brother/guardian, and how each of them struggles for independence.

Gumbel, associate professor of voice & opera, first worked with Kander as librettist on another chamber opera piece, “dwb (driving while black),” which was also workshopped at KU in 2018. It will soon have its fourth and fifth productions in opera companies across the country, Gumbel said.

With this new opera, Gumbel and Kander shared the lyric-writing duties, while Kander again composed the music. And this time, it’s a much bigger production, Gumbel said.

“'Dwb' was 45 minutes and one person to move around,” Gumbel said. “This is seven people to move around, plus an orchestra of 11 people. Plus, it's 95 minutes — double the length of 'dwb.' It's really a full-length opera but done without intermission. It's a big piece, very different.”

“Carry My Own Suitcase” features a dancer who acts out the inner mental and emotional life of the main character, Roger, onstage while an actor speaks the character’s lines in time to the music.

“The young man portraying Roger does not sing through the entire piece,” Gumbel said. “His text is scored in the music, but it's all spoken. So he's speaking in rhythm, on musical cues, but he doesn't sing a note. … The dancer is a visual expression of what he cannot express verbally.”

While “dwb” had its roots in Kander wanting to explore Gumbel’s concern for her soon-to-drive teenage son, “Suitcase” is Kander’s fictional response to the real-life situation of an extended family member, Gumbel said.

“She and I get along so well,” Gumbel said, “and Susan said, ‘I really want to continue this partnership.’ So when this piece became sort of the next topic, we just jumped in.”

Gumbel said that during COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, “We tried to have weekly Zoom sessions and wrote via a Google doc that was going back and forth. She'd send it in different colors, and I'd correct in other colors, and then we'd meet on Mondays at whatever time and pull it apart and put it back together until it all sort of started to make sense.”

Gumbel said Kander then “has to write the music in a way that she feels fits the story.

“There's a parallel story going on, and that is that the older brother would also like some independence, and his world is limited, or he thinks it's limited, by his responsibility to Roger,” Gumbel said. “He too, would like to just pack a bag and disappear sometimes.”

It’s a story to which Gumbel said the authors have tried to provide “a hopeful ending.”

Gumbel said she is anxious to see the show on its feet and that the duo would likely make revisions in response to the initial production. The local costs of the workshop are being funded in part by a National Endowment of the Arts grant to Gumbel, while Kander’s work on the project is being funded by an Opera America discovery grant devoted to the development of new works by women.

“Carry My Own Suitcase” will be staged at 7:30 p.m. March 3 and 3 p.m. March 4. Admission is free, but seating is limited, and thus reservations are strongly encouraged. To reserve seats, email or call 785-864-3436.

Image: Roberta Gumbel (left) and Susan Kander at a recent rehearsal for "Carry My Own Suitcase." Credit: Rick Hellman, KU News Service.

Wed, 03/01/2023


Rick Hellman

Media Contacts

Rick Hellman

KU News Service