The [R]evolution of Steve Jobs
Music by Mason Bates
Libretto by Mark Campbell
Marion Oliver Mccaw Hall
February 23, 2019
Review by Sharon Cumberland
I have good news for Seattle opera lovers and the tech-curious who may have wondered if a contemporary opera about digital wizard and bad-boy Steve Jobs was an idea whose time had come: The [R]evolution of Steve Jobs by composer Mason Bates is a terrific night out – well worth seeing in this super-dramatic new opera.
The set design by Vita Tzykun is spectacular, the performances are uniformly perfect – John Moore in the long, intense role of Steve Jobs brought a powerful baritone to the role and an uncanny sense of the man – and Bates’ music is a multi-textured wonder. The opera is performed by a gigantic orchestra with an electronic core and the largest collection of percussion instruments in SO history. Not only that, Parisian conductor Nicole Paiement is that rarest of birds – a woman on the podium – and an expert in the development and performance of contemporary opera. The [R]evolution of Steve Jobs is a co-commission by Seattle Opera, Santa Fe Opera, Indiana University, and San Francisco Opera, where Maestro Paiement nurtures new works through Opera Parallèle. It was a thrill to see this internationally famous woman at the Seattle Opera podium. You could actually see her conduct because the podium was so high – her arms were like an air dance to the wildly dramatic music.
Librettist Mark Campbell co-wrote (with Kimberly Reed) SO’s 2017 community opera As One – the extremely moving chamber opera about a trans person finding their true identity. Similar to that project, Campbell used small sharply focused scenes to negotiate the complex story of Steve Jobs’ public and private lives, bringing a chamber-type intimacy to what is a very big, loud, dramatic main-stage production. Beginning with the child Steve (a silent role played with admirable intensity by Thomas Gomes) and his father Paul Jobs (the kindly Morgan Smith) we see the start of an interest in -taking things apart and putting them together again- when young Steve is given a work bench and tool kit for his birthday. In the eighteen scenes that follow, we see Steve build a digital empire, love and leave one family, create another, interact with his guru Kobun Chino Otogawa (Adam Lau, in excellent voice), who Steve finally joins on the other side of death, returning to the mystery of creation as a boy in his father’s garage.
If this sounds like myth-making, it is – especially in Bates’ marvelously percussive, multi-textured orchestral and electronic hybrid composition. He managed to bring the very new together with age-old orchestral power to convey the wonderment of the digital age. Yet in opera the composer generally needs an excellent narrative libretto before composition in order to do the best work, and I can only wonder what this opera would have been if Campbell’s libretto had been more ambitious and less conventional. Music expresses the emotional content of a text – but the story is in the hands of the librettist. Instead of going after the big story, Campbell stuck to the predictable tale of an obnoxious man being made better by a faithful woman (after he dumped another faithful woman). For those of us who are old enough to have lived through the high drama of the early computer age – the simple machines that seemed like miracles, the battle between the Microsoft PC and the Apple Mac, the firing of Jobs and near-collapse of Apple, the rise of Pixar, the return of Jobs to Apple, the subsequent world-shattering iPhone, and the weirdly improbable death of Jobs before his time – the storyline of the opera seems at once too brief, too cryptic, and too small.
My opera buddy, who is a generation younger than I am, agreed that you had to know the story of the transition from the literate to the digital age to understand the opera story. An early scene, in which the adult Jobs holds up the iPhone and sings about digital convergence onto -one device,- is a bit ho-hum in the sense that we all have that one device in our pockets, so what’s the big deal? The opera does nothing to convey what the world was like in the olden days, when there was no internet, when you had to spend hours in the library to find things out, and when all the metaphors of the digital age – files, pages, headers, footers, cutting, pasting – were real-world phenomena. My students were always fascinated to hear me describe my own college years, when writing a research paper involved literal cutting and pasting of revisions into long, scroll-like pages for re-typing on an actual typewriter. These are the kids who look at the dial of an old-fashioned telephone and wonder where the buttons are. To have a single scene in which Jobs holds up an ordinary iPhone misses the big story of what Wozniak and Jobs actually set in motion at Steve’s workbench in his dad’s garage.
Without that sense of wizardry, we don’t really know why Steve Jobs deserves an opera anymore than Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, or Tim Berners-Lee – or Alan Turing for that matter, or any of the brilliant women of the Blenchley Circle whose collective genius is coming to light only now. Because – take it from me, you younger folk – it was magical, the steady evolution of machines that became more and more powerful, useful, and quasi-human. It was also a time of steady mourning over the things that went away – the hands-on connection with your own work, the card catalogue with its genealogies of handwriting on every card, the active searching for knowledge – not in you boring old office or living rooms but in reading rooms that were like palaces of learning. I wish Campbell had brought a larger, more complex vision to this assignment – a story as ambitious as the complexity and drama of Bates’ composition and Tzykun’s intriguing sets.
Nevertheless, Seattle Opera has brought something really new and exciting to the stage. Though we’re living in a very fertile time for contemporary opera, only a small percentage of new works enter the repertoire. I think this one will find wide success. But see it now, while you have a chance to enjoy the original production and Paiement’s wonderful conducting. We Seattleites, of all people, will bring our own experience to this opera – our special understanding of the impact that Steve Jobs brought to our own professional and personal lives. Seattle Opera’s The [R]evolution of Steve Jobs is on the stage at McCaw Hall through March 9.