Review | World Premiere: “The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs”

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus. Photo by: Ken Howard

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus (Photo by: Ken Howard)

“The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs,” Mason Bates, composer; Mark Campbell, librettist. World premiere production – opening night / Santa Fe Opera, July 22, 2017

By Thom Mariner

Sorry to be tardy in posting this, but I wanted time to reflect, and not just react to the performance, as most reviews do.

There’s nothing quite like the excitement of the debut performance of a new composition. Combine that with the unconventional premise of a new opera about technology (What, no gods, goblins or governors?) and a true contemporary legend, and the anticipation ramps up even more.

Will it measure up? Did it measure up?

First, some background: The 90-minute work is broken into numerous short scenes. The prologue is in the Jobs family garage, 1967. Steve’s dad has built his son a workbench where he can tinker to his heart’s content. The second scene leaps ahead 40 years, to the introduction of the iPhone in 2007. There is a lot of leaping back and forth, but more about that shortly.

Perhaps it’s best to address the qualms first …

Most glaring for me is the complete omission of that period between when Jobs was brought back in triumph to run Apple and the iPhone launch. No iMac, iPad, iPod, etc.

No saving the company and growing it into one of the most valuable publicly traded corporations on the planet.

No, it’s not important to address every innovation or breakthrough to make the opera complete, but leaving out this chapter renders the story of Steve Jobs significantly unbalanced and leaves a gaping hole in his evolution.

This is not a flattering story in any way, shape or form. Not saying it should be, but there is no denying the profound impact this man had on the world around him, and not everyone he encountered was scarred along the way. He was revered by many. Genius of any kind is exceedingly complicated. The rest of us can only try to keep up.

Qualm No. 2: the aforementioned time inversions. Confessing to a dislike of this dramatic technique when done to this extreme, my big concern is that it did nothing to advance the story. As my wife so aptly observed, “Evolution is a linear process, after all.” I would love to know more about the librettist’s choices here.

Now that these two objections are out of the way – and acknowledging that they are not small – you might be surprised to hear I really liked this opera. It represents what contemporary opera should aspire to be.

I confess to having heard only a few of Mason Bates’ works previously, knowing him perhaps better by reputation as someone to watch. His music for “Jobs” is fresh, vibrant, colorfully orchestrated and surprisingly sensitive to and well-balanced with the singers. With its exemplary diction, the only time surtitles seemed necessary was during duets and ensembles.

As with many of Bates’ contemporaries, minimalism is present in this work, but more as texture and effect than driving force. The musical language is very today, while remaining infinitely accessible and often incredibly beautiful. Elements of jazz, blues, etc., naturally inhabit the score. Electronics are present, as you might expect from an opera about technology, but never overbearing. This is most emphatically a human story.

A lot of the credit must be shared with conductor Michael Christie, whose command of the proceedings was superb, balancing forces beautifully and allowing the drama to speak via the score. Bravo.

Bates’ vocal lines are natural and serve the text, first and foremost – such a pleasure for the listener. It had none of the vocal histrionics typical in much modern-day opera, where composers seem compelled to challenge singers at every turn.

For this show, the singers seem to have been chosen for their vocal clarity, rather than operatic power, adding to the naturalness of the story. Mezzo Sasha Cooke, as wife Laurene Jobs, shone most brightly, along with bass Wei Wu’s velvety humor as Jobs’ spiritual adviser. Baritone Edward Parks was solid in the demanding lead role, as was tenor Garrett Sorenson as Woz (Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak). Their bluesy duet about being technological “Davids” taking down “Goliaths” elicited spontaneous applause, and deservedly so.

And speaking of the story, librettist Mark Campbell’s dialogue rings incredibly true to the ear, what my brother aptly termed “smart.” It crackles with humor, anger, and yes, cruelty, matched perfectly by Bates’ score. The compact individual scenes created compelling pockets of drama, infused with skillful interplay, but occasionally allowing for expanded personal reflection in the form of arias.

The outstanding chorus served a variety of dramatic functions, and it was great to hear a composer willing to make it sing as a true vocal ensemble, rather than merely a dramatic device. There are some stunning modern choral moments in “Jobs,” and the singers executed remarkably well.

Scenes were effectively set and changed using a series of large, moveable panels, on which projections established mood and place, ranging from serene night sky to cascading torrents of digital imagery. Some have said these panels resemble iPhones themselves, the iconic, life-changing device that serves as the dramatic centerpiece of the opera.

A sweet spot exists between contemporary musical theater and opera that’s ripe for development. “The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs” exists in this realm, much like Cincinnati Opera’s “Fellow Travelers” from 2016. Here’s hoping other composers see the potential.

“The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs” has four more performances through Aug. 25 at Santa Fe Opera.

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