SANTA FE, NM: How often do you go into a concert hall or an opera house where a world premiere is happening and know that you’ve struck gold as soon as the opening notes are sounded? Not very often, in my experience. Ever rarer is the occasion when the piece leaps high over the already sky-high bar that you’ve set for it.
Well, it happened with the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs in the Santa Fe Opera House last Saturday on the 22nd of July. An attractive wash of electronica from the laptop of composer Mason Bates gave way to a touching scene, beautifully-scored, where Steve Jobs’s father gives the 10-year-old visionary-to-be a work bench that he built for him. Immediately, I knew it; I felt it. This show was going to be a hit. A big hit. And the feeling didn’t let up throughout the opera’s 95 minutes.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs painted a rounded portrait of Steve Jobs the hippie-turned-techie-turned-entrepreneur-turned-prophet who died too young to fully savor his technological revolution. It captured the excitement and consumer mania of a product launch in a way that dared not mention the word Apple and didn’t have to. It didn’t flinch from Jobs’s flaws, suggesting a workaholic genius/monster who can be compared with a figure like Wagner – a genius/monster himself – in the way both of these difficult men truly changed the world. It made us feel for the human beings whose lives Jobs messed up, and it also made us ponder whether the wonders that technology has thrust upon us have been worth the price, monetary and otherwise.
In earlier works, Bates came up with an attractive, even irreverent blend of symphonic music and pitch-less electronica – hence my high expectations – yet he took it to an even higher, more expressive level in his first opera as he knitted together various acoustic and electronic styles and timbres seamlessly. An acoustic guitar was often in the lead, representing Jobs’s love for the instrument and Bob Dylan in particular (interestingly, there is no mention of Jobs’s other great musical love, The Beatles, whose company – also called Apple – battled with Jobs’s outfit over trademark infringements and other issues for three decades). Bach motifs were slyly inserted into the piece whenever Jobs brings up his name, although the real Jobs’s iPod contained only a minimal amount of Bach.
Mark Campbell’s libretto – one of the best for a contemporary opera I’ve ever read – exuded empathy, irony, snark, even humor, and Bates made it sing, writing gratefully for the voice. Even the meditative episodes where Jobs is steered by his guru, Köbun Chino Otogowa (sung by Wei Wu), did not flag in interest, partly through the use of occasional shafts of humor.
From a seat way in the back of the opera house, Edward Parks looked uncannily like the aging Steve Jobs in the 21st century (binoculars reduced the illusion slightly), and he occupied the stage forcefully for almost the entire opera. Sasha Cooke turned her luxuriously warm mezzo-soprano upon the role of Jobs’s nurturing wife Laurene – and she got to deliver the most trenchant lines in the opera at the end of Jobs’s memorial service:
“And after this is over,
The very second this is over,
For better or worse,
Everyone will reach,
Reach in their pockets,
And — guess what? —
Look at their phones,
Their `one device.’”
Which indeed, a lot of people did, without even thinking about it, even though the lines got a laugh. And that says something. In addition to all of the sheer musical, visual and literary talent, imagination and showmanship that went into this wonderfully moving opera, another potent reason why this is going to be a big hit everywhere is that it speaks directly to us in 2017 – to our lifestyles, even to those who abhor devices. For better and worse – and I think, mostly for the better – we still live in Steve Jobs’s world.