With Canadian Premiere Of ‘Jobs,’ Opera House Buffs Modernist Profile

Brett Polegato plays the Apple founder in the Calgary Opera’s Canadian premiere of Mason Bates’ and Mark Campbell’s ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.’ (Photos by Trudie Lee)

CALGARY — In his welcoming remarks to the opening-night audience of Calgary Opera’s Canadian premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs on Feb. 4, artistic director Jonathan Brandani gave a nod to the company’s history of presenting the first Canadian performances of many contemporary American operas.

Calgarians have been the first Canadians to see Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Moby-Dick, Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, Kevin Puts’ Silent Night, and, most recently, Joby Talbot’s Everest. The company also holds the distinction of commissioning more full-length works than any other company in the country. John Estacio and John Murrell’s Filumena, the first commission, just marked its 20th anniversary.

Composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell’s 20-scene episodic opera about the life of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs premiered in Santa Fe in the summer of 2017, and this new co-production with Austin Opera, Atlanta Opera, Utah Opera, and Lyric Opera of Kansas City has helped give The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs more cultural currency than many new works can boast. The live recording featuring the Santa Fe cast won a Best Opera Recording Grammy in 2019.

Brett Polegato as Steve Jobs and John Tessier as Steve Wozniak.

Bates’ score is full of textural variety, incorporating standard orchestral timbres, especially for the most “operatic” moments, but also sweet classical guitar accompaniment where a more conventional treatment might enlist lyrical strings, and signature Bates electronica, most helpful in a narrative about a techno-wizard like Jobs. The spirit of the piece is frequently propulsive, mirroring the mind of the driven genius, perhaps, when the sound doesn’t fade altogether, and the orchestration features more wind writing than strings in emotionally elevated moments.

One of the most charged scenes occurs between Jobs (Canadian baritone Brett Polegato) and his founding partner Steve Wozniak (tenor John Tessier). It features the aria “Goliath,” in which Wozniak itemizes the sociopathic characteristics that Jobs, the uncompromising perfectionist, was notorious for, both in his work and private life. In the scene, Wozniak quits the company (Apple and Apple products are never mentioned since Apple did not give its blessing) and condemns Jobs for his numerous flaws. In the aria, Wozniak calls his erstwhile partner “an egomaniacal, self-centered, self-serving, self-deceived, mega-corporate prick! … You’ve become one of the people we hated,” Woz sings. “A Goliath.” Tessier has been a go-to leading man for a couple of decades in the Canadian opera scene. He owned his part in the drama as one of the moral centers of the Jobs biography, here in a sidekick role, and his experience being center stage in so many past productions shone through.

One of Jobs’ most egregious transgressions was his treatment of a girlfriend he impregnated and then dumped after pushing her to abort the fetus. She kept the child, and only toward the end of his life did Jobs acknowledge his paternity. Canadian soprano Melody Courage sang the role of Chrisann Brennan sympathetically, at first as the coy woman lolling romantically in an apple orchard on an acid trip with her boyfriend, and later as the jilted lover indignant at Jobs’ callous indifference to her predicament.

Wei Wu is the Zen master who advises Steve Jobs (Brett Polegato).

Chinese-American Wei Wu was the original Zen mentor in the Santa Fe premiere and on the recording. He’s a settling force in the Jobs story and softens the mood of the opera with his aphoristic wit and resonant bass. In scenes when he stirs Jobs toward a more patient, unaggressive perspective, Wu was the delightfully engaging central character in a libretto that mainly puts Jobs in the spotlight.

The other female character in the Jobs story is his wife, Laureen. Whereas his treatment of Chrisann reveals Jobs’ narcissistic side, Campbell’s depiction of Laureen’s influence is meant to show the supposed “evolution” of the protagonist. Based on several other biographical treatments of Jobs’ life, the simplistic domestic halo cast over their relationship strains credulity. In the finale, where Laureen eulogizes Jobs as the man who put “the device” in millions of pockets but never intended to see it tempt its users away from a less technologically obsessed existence, her wrapping up is too pat. The difficult man is fixed by the love a good woman, and this convenient plot decision is the weakest feature of the 100-minute work.

The narrative ends at Jobs’ memorial after his death from cancer at age 56. Chinese American mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce gave a compelling performance as the devoted wife pushing her stubborn husband to get his priorities straight as his disease progressed. She makes the argument that Jobs has changed, and musically she was convincing, if not narratively. Campbell could have written a short scene featuring the single mother Jobs abandoned. Or he could have shown the life of a former penurious employee whom Jobs refused to help, telling Wozniak he didn’t give “handouts.”

The chorus plays a vital role in the opera, ‘playing doting media, workers building components, and Zen meditators.’

However, it is a version of the Jobs story, after all, and Polegato embodied the beast of a role as grippingly as any singer taking on such an unsympathetic character could. Polegato was on stage continuously, and Tomer Zvulun, who also directed the opera at his home company in Atlanta, created a seamless flow that took Polegato all over the Jubilee Auditorium stage, and frequently onto an elevated platform from which he played the public face of the revolutionary company he founded, led, almost broke, and then ultimately revitalized to become the Apple we know today. (Jacob Climer’s set also had a whimsical depiction of a psychedelic trip.) Zvulun gave the chorus a strong presence in their several scenes, playing doting media, workers building components, and Zen meditators.

S. Katy Tucker’s projections, cast upon several banks of monitors set vertically to each side and in a cluster closer to the middle were visually magnetic, generating edgy streams of evocative images at computer speed, or more steadying depictions of the few tranquil elements in this story.

Calgary Opera’s decades-long tradition of bringing new work to Canada continues, and the well-attended opening-night crowd seemed happy that their company would continue to go beyond conventional programming that avoids artistic risk.