Steve Jobs Opera Scores Smash Hit For Mason Bates
By Donald Rosenberg
SANTA FE, N.M. – Composers who attempt to tame the artistic beast known as opera often must make several tries before coming close to their goal, if they ever do. Then there’s someone like Mason Bates, who has shot out of the starting gate and raced across the finish line with his first opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which had its world premiere July 22 at the Santa Fe Opera.
Few operas – let alone first operas – achieve the instant success that appears to be the happy fate of Steve Jobs, a work of almost relentless appeal and creativity, thanks to a glistening Bates score, a tautly structured and witty libretto by Mark Campbell, and a production abounding in stunning and purposeful visual feats.
Could anything of topical interest claim more relevance than the pulsating sounds and images that this opera conjures with so many surges of aesthetic energy? Jobs, after all, was the visionary co-founder of Apple, the company he led with obsessive and sometimes inhumane vehemence, and the brains behind the transformative communication tool – the “one device,” as he calls it here – that became the iPhone. Opera loves complex characters who are embroiled in messy situations and relationships, so cue Steve Jobs: Perhaps no one in the public sphere during the late 20th and early 21st centuries was more torn than this figure whose triumph in revolutionizing technology was accompanied by personal demons, and whose life was cut short by pancreatic cancer.
Steve Jobs doesn’t aspire to present a historical account of the man’s journey from ambitious entrepreneur to technology genius. Campbell’s compact libretto charts the ups and downs of Jobs’ career and life in a prologue, 18 scenes, and epilogue that unfold as a one-act, 90-minute opera so swift and absorbing you’re left wondering if the creators might have fleshed out the narrative even more.
But what’s there is deeply compelling, as well as funny and touching. The narrative jumps back and forth through time, framed by scenes of Jobs’ father presenting his young son with a work table and tools. Jobs goes on to plant the seeds of technological revolution with his friend, Steve “Woz” Wozniak. Along the circuitous way, the opera’s protagonist finds momentary solace in the guidance of a spiritual mentor while struggling to maintain a semblance of professional and emotional balance. Campbell’s libretto – by turns crisp, whimsical, edgy, and warm – touches upon the inner and outer conflicts that dogged Jobs’ evolution as mogul and human being walking a tightrope.
The story’s turmoil, exhilaration, and empathy – Jobs is depicted as tragic hero rather than irredeemable rogue – leap from stage and pit, thanks in large part to Bates’ beguiling score. Noted for music blending acoustical instruments with electronica, the American composer weaves these elements seamlessly in Steve Jobs, stretching the palette of orchestral colors and fitting them organically to graceful and fervent vocal lines. English is notoriously difficult to set to music with comprehensibility, but Bates – aided by Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach’s discreet sound design (all right: amplification) – has found myriad ways for Campbell’s text to make its consequential points.
The music is a constant source of telling dramatic incident. Bits of minimalism keep the score bubbling along at times, especially when Jobs and Woz are in creative, rebellious motion; elsewhere, Bates applies a panorama of urgent and lyrical brushstrokes. Each of the principal characters is defined by a different sound world, the most striking of which are the soaring music associated with Jobs’ devoted wife, Laurene, and the Tibetan gong-filled realm inhabited by his Buddhist mentor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa. Michael Christie conducted a vibrant performance, with the company’s orchestra in ultra-alert form and composer Bates occupying a spot in the pit to animate the electronic side of things.
The Santa Fe Opera, presenting the fifteenth world premiere in its 60-year history, appears to have spared no expense to bring its newest commission (a co-production with Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music) to pulsating life. The production, staged with razor-sharp urgency by Kevin Newbury, is a marvel of eye-catching phenomena, always at the service of the narrative. Victoria “Vita” Tzykun’s shimmering scenic design includes a series of panels – moved with choreographic elegance by cast members – that welcome all manner of iPhone, technological, and natural details projected, to magical effect, by 59 Productions. Paul Carey’s costumes add apt color and Japhy Weideman’s lighting a spectrum of atmospheric nuances.
Future productions of the work will be challenged to match the level of the inaugural cast. From my seat toward the back of the main floor, baritone Edward Parks appeared to embody a remarkable physical reincarnation of Jobs and highlighted both his arrogance and his vulnerability. Most importantly, he sang with fierce commitment and, when the man faces his mortality, poetic beauty. He had the good fortune to be paired with the rich-voiced mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who suffused Laurene with emotional depth of Mahlerian eloquence.
Wei Wu, a bass of noble vocal gifts, was a commanding presence as Kōbun Chino Otogawa, even when telling Jobs that “Karma can suck.” As Woz, the splendid tenor Garrett Sorenson registered equal degrees of glee and outrage in his encounters with Jobs, while soprano Jessica E. Jones combined sweetness and sympathy as Chrisann, who does what she can to tolerate Jobs, a most unpredictable boyfriend. The members of the superb Santa Fe Opera Chorus carried out their musical and theatrical responsibilities with fine polish.
In forging an opera about an iconic and controversial figure who had an explosive impact on civilization, Bates and Campbell have devised a work that treats its subject with respect, humor, and pathos. But it is the knowing Laurene who finally stands at the opera’s heart. She recognizes that connecting means more than reaching into one’s pocket “the very second this is over.” Had Jobs lived and evolved further, she sings wistfully, he might have urged people to “Look up, look out, look around…Be here now.”
Now it’s up to opera lovers to look out with heightened anticipation for the next Bates opera, though his first could be a hard act to follow.
The Santa Fe Opera performs The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs in repertory with Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, Johann Strauss Jr.s’ Die Fledermaus, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, and Handel’s Alcina through Aug. 26. For information, go here. If you can’t make it to Santa Fe this season, don’t despair: The Dutch label Pentatone is recording Steve Jobs for a release date to be announced.
Donald Rosenberg is editor of EMAg, the magazine of Early Music America, and author of The Cleveland Orchestra Story: “Second to None.” He teaches music criticism at Oberlin College and is an instructor in Case Western Reserve University’s Siegal Lifelong Learning Program, when not serving as national editor for Classical Voice North America. He served four terms as president of the Music Critics Association of North America.