‘(R)evolution’ Revisited: Steve Jobs Opera Gets A Compelling Renewal

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Steve Jobs (Brian Moore, center) celebrates the release of the iPhone in Mason Bates’ ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’ at San Francisco Opera. (Photos by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera)

SAN FRANCISCO — Near the end of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the protagonist ironically quotes F. Scott Fitzgerald’s famous observation: “There are no second acts in American lives.” Composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell build their opera on the premise that Steve Jobs, as they reimagine him, experiences a very private second act in which he “learns to be human again” (to cite the composer’s note).

Jobs has finally landed at San Francisco Opera, the city in which the first iPhone was announced in 2007 — the opera refers to Apple products only by inference — and all but two of its scenes unfold in the Bay Area. Among the companies that co-commissioned the work, San Francisco Opera’s presentation comes six years after Jobs had its world premiere at Santa Fe Opera, and it follows a three-year postponement caused by the pandemic. The traumatic events reshaping the Zeitgeist since 2017, together with accelerating advances in artificial intelligence, have made the opera’s message about the need to reconnect with our humanity even more resonant.

Clearly The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs has been striking a chord with today’s audiences, attracting an enthusiastic response everywhere it has been produced to date, from Seattle and Calgary to Atlanta. The 2018 recording on Pentatone garnered four Grammy nominations and won for Best Opera Recording.

A scene from the San Francisco Opera production of Mason Bates’ ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’

While Jobs deftly depicts the sense of game-changing innovation surrounding the far-reaching technological revolution symbolized by its title character, the reality of his timelessly human vulnerability is where the opera really wants to focus. The very first scene involving the adult Steve Jobs dramatizes the aforementioned public launch of the iPhone with rousing music whose steady build-up of excitement echoes the scene of the presidential aircraft’s arrival early in Nixon in China (a clear model for several aspects of the Bates-Campbell opera). But this segues immediately into a private dramatic space that introduces the topic of Jobs’ fatal cancer.

Campbell’s libretto structures the opera as a single long act comprising brief scenes and framed by images of Jobs as a boy in the family garage confronting a future of wonder-struck discovery. The scenes intercut public and private moments and blend references to Jobs’ actual biography with imagined encounters. They trace a nonlinear narrative meant to reaffirm the insight Jobs voices in another early scene: “You can’t connect the dots going forward. You can only connect them going backward.” 

Sascha Cooke plays Jobs’ wife, Laurene.

Bates’ score is a unique hybrid of acoustic instrumental colors and electronic sounds (which the composer manipulated in real time from his laptops in the orchestra pit). The experience he had accumulated both as a sought-after orchestral composer and as an active DJ and avid experimenter with electronica served him well in conceiving a signature sound world for Jobs.

Overall, I found the result at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House more appealing and, curiously, fresher than I did at my first encounter with the opera in 2017 in Santa Fe. Conductor Michael Christie, a quintessential part of the production team since that premiere, continues to mold the show with an admirable balance of precision and flexibility, navigating its shifting soundscapes with unfussy flair.

A kinetic texture of electronic beats and clicks pulses across the opera, frequently tinged with sparkling, tuned percussion and other instruments in a high register. Its nervous staccato energy gives the operatic character of Jobs a readily discernible musical personality, at the same time reinforcing a sense of his restlessness. Many of the solo vocal exchanges unfold as nondescript parlando, but Bates shows real skill in his writing for ensemble.

Baritone John Moore didn’t create the title role in Santa Fe but has since made it his own, conveying the Ahab-like obsessiveness of Jobs’ unforgiving perfectionism. You already sensed its roots in the Prologue when father Paul Jobs (Joseph Lattanzi) gifts him with his first wooden worktable. Moore emphasized the character’s simmering anger to especially powerful effect, and with it his capacity to lash out with wanton cruelty. At the same time, Moore showed a moving hint of fragility, without resorting to sentimentality, in the scenes with his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, and with the Zen monk Kōbun Chino Otogawa, his spiritual mentor.

Bates uses specific timbral combinations in tandem with vocal archetypes to individualize the cast. Laurene, whom mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke brought to life with stirring emotional warmth as well as grit, is swathed in radiant harmonies and soaring, neo-Romantic lyricism. Her interventions in the opera’s culminating scenes steer Jobs back toward the humanity and sense of connection he has lost between the “dots”: a 21st-century reboot of Wagnerian redemption by love.

Steve Wozniak (Bille Bruley) teams with Steve Jobs (John Moore).

Wei Wu in particular stood out as Kōbun, cast as a wise bass accompanied by resonating Tibetan bowls and gong. The cliched elements thus suggested were alleviated by the winningly smart-alecky one-liners with which he parceled out some penetrating insights. With his firm sepulchral register, Wei Wu resembled a laid-back Sarastro.

For Chrisann Brennan, the girlfriend Jobs abandons when she becomes pregnant, Bates draws from the coloratura template and colors the vocal line with twittering flutes. Soprano Olivia Smith portrayed Chrisann with such vocal grace and vivid emotion that I wished Bates and Campbell had given her a more expansive role. Instead, her character is written to be essentially a reactive victim of Jobs’s dismissive callousness.

As the inventor/engineer friend Steve Wozniak (“Woz”), tenor Bille Bruley evoked the joy of creative discovery in a delightfully jazz-tinged scene as well as the pained anger caused by his close friend. He represented with panache the nonconformist side of Apple’s early days. With respect to Jobs himself, the opera limits depictions of that side to his veganism, spiritual practice, and, in one of the most interesting scenes musically, a transformative LSD trip during a picnic with Chrisann in an apple orchard.

Director Kevin Newbury shaped a palpable sense of ensemble connection among this excellent cast. He teased out telling details while sustaining the efficient — which is not to say harried — pacing that is the defining aesthetic of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. This might be described as a sleek minimalism. It was perfectly mirrored by Victoria (Vita) Zyklun’s set of giant iPhone-shaped screens, which got moved about for scene changes, providing surfaces for projections (by 59 Productions) that ranged from synapse-like circuitry to the serene hills around Cupertino. The bright patterns of Paul Carey’s costumes served as a foil to Jobs’s monophonic (almost monk-like) uniform of blue jeans cum black turtleneck.

Steve Jobs (John Moore) with his spiritual mentor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa (Wei Wu).

Bates has referred to the formal design of seamlessly progressing scenes as “a pixelated narrative: tiny scenes that are spread out like pixels and whose meaning accumulates over the course of the opera.” But the opera’s neatly synced minimalism comes with a certain glibness. I wasn’t convinced that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts, which is why the sudden outburst of radiant, resolved harmony in the final seconds struck me as unearned, hollow.

Still, there is much to admire here, above all, the beautifully tailored harmony of all the production elements and ensemble esprit. It sometimes became all too easy to forget that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is the composer’s first full-length opera. All the more reason to look forward to Bates’ next adventure on the opera stage, based on Michael Chabon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (to a libretto by Gene Scheer). Los Angeles Opera will give the premiere in 2024 before it arrives at the Metropolitan Opera in 2025.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs continues at the San Fransisco Opera through Oct. 7. For information and tickets, go here.