Santa Fe Opera 3: Dots Connected
It is hard to deny that Steve Jobs, for good or ill, altered the way we listen to music, the way we communicate with other people, the way we work and the way we kill time. Yet his innovations were matched by a capacity for mythmaking that allowed him to cultivate the image of a visionary who gave the world what it didn’t even know it wanted. That myth was largely upheld in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a co-commission from the Santa Fe, Seattle and San Francisco Operas, which received its world première in Santa Fe this summer. Although the opera – composed by Mason Bates to a libretto by Mark Campbell – did not shy away from placing the flaws of its protagonist on prominent display, it remained at heart an old-fashioned and completely engaging tale of one man’s struggles and triumphs on his way to changing the world. The opera had, as its starting point, a superbly crafted, densely allusive libretto. ‘You can’t connect the dots going forward’ says Jobs early in the opera, ‘you can only connect them going backward.’ Mr Campbell seems to have taken this as his structural model: after a brief prologue featuring a young Steve Jobs and a scene depicting the launch of a certain game-changing smartphone, the story shattered into countless fragments which were reconnected in a defiantly non-chronological fashion over the following ninety minutes. There were no surprising revelations and no obvious departures from the canon of established fact: the lightly fictionalised scenes, some no more than mere moments, spanned four decades and touched on well-known episodes in the life of its ‘hero’, from the construction of the first prototype in a garage, to the later onset of his terminal disease. The craft lay more in the construction than the invention.
Admittedly, few of the individual scenes were especially subtle: each emotional beat was italicised and underlined, and even the ambiguities were clearly articulated. Yet it was hard not to marvel at the architecture. In sliding back and forth between the seventies, the eighties and the aughts, Mr Campbell fashioned his fragments into a richly detailed, remarkably balanced narrative of success, failure and redemption; even more impressive was the constant thematic cross-referencing – lines from one scene would often recur in subsequent scenes with a slightly different spin – which allowed Mr Campbell to weave ideas about music, Zen and the creative spirit into the story without disrupting the pace of the action.
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Jessica Jones (Chrisann Brennan) in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Music by Mason Bates. Kevin Newbury, director. Michael Christie, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2017 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
(The libretto’s other stroke of genius – almost certainly dictated by legal rather than artistic considerations – was its studious avoidance of Apple brand names. According to the programme note, the opera was created without the endorsement of Apple Computers, and Mr Campbell was thus forced to tell the story of Steve Jobs avoiding all references to Macs, iPhones and Newtons. Apples themselves were referenced only as a fruit, and the one computer given a name – the now-obscure Lisa, a precursor to the Mac – was also the name of the daughter that Jobs initially refused to recognise.)
The scope of musical reference points in Mason Bates’ score – from early-twentieth century impressionism, to American minimalism to present-day EDM – was striking, but the diverse components and influences were assembled so skilfully as to avoid the trap of pastiche. In certain sections one could detect fleeting echoes of Stravinsky’s rhythmic flexibility or the layered clusters of Lontano-era Ligeti, but the appearances of the monk Kōbun were accompanied by a pan-Asian mélange of gongs and flutes pilfered from the Nonesuch Explorer back catalogue, and the wonderful ‘smartphone chorus’ near the beginning suggested (perhaps unintentionally) the incessant chants of French progressive group Magma.
The opera was scored for a large and slightly unconventional orchestra – there were saxophones and an acoustic guitar that, although performed live, sounded disarmingly similar to the ‘acoustic guitar’ setting in Garage Band – but the most distinctive feature of the orchestration was its seamless integration of electronics. If the libretto had avoided all reference to Apple products, Mr Bates – who performed the evening’s electronic parts from a MacBook in the orchestra pit – was able to create a fascinating sonic palette from the whirrs, clicks and dings sampled directly from old Macs. In the score’s most captivating moments – it was conducted with exacting flair by Michael Christie – the acoustic and digital instruments merged into a glorious evocation of both the story’s sleek machines and the flawed humanity of their creator.
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Music by Mason Bates. Kevin Newbury, director. Michael Christie, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2017
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Music by Mason Bates. Kevin Newbury, director. Michael Christie, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2017 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Although the opera ranged freely through time and space, Kevin Newbury’s production admitted no confusion. The set featured six large white blocks – they looked a bit like giant iPhones – which did not merely delimit the space of the individual scenes but also functioned as screens for a near-constant stream of video projections. The projections, by 59 Productions, offered visual clues to the setting (an apple orchard, a boardroom, etc.) but in their less purely functional moments they provided an impressionistic backdrop of glowing circuit-board imagery that conjured memories of a time in the early eighties when the inner life of the computer was viewed with the same optimistic awe that outer space had been in the years before the moon landing. Yet despite the dazzling imagery and rigorous stage management, Mr Newbury ensured that the unfolding story was driven first and foremost by its characters.
Chief among those characters was Steve Jobs himself, given a tireless performance by Edward Parks. Dressed in the requisite black roll-neck, jeans and chunky trainers, Mr Parks was able to convey the sense of a charismatic if not especially likable individual who, in two of the opera’s most highly-charged scenes, had no trouble denying the paternity of his daughter or betraying the youthful dreams still held by his best friend and colleague. Yet in his finest scene, a monologue suggesting how the beauty of music could inform the mechanics of computers, it was possible to believe that the difficult genius of the title character may at least have originated from a noble place.
Garrett Sorenson (Woz) and Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Music by Mason Bates. Kevin Newbury, director. Michael Christie, conductor. Santa Fe Opera, August 2017 © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Steve Jobs played a prominent role in every scene, but his elusive character was more often defined by the figures who surrounded him. As Kōbun, a Zen Buddhist and Jobs’ spiritual mentor, Wei Wu gave a performance that was equal parts spiritual enlightenment and comic relief, offering deadpan pragmatism in response to Jobs’ flights of ego. Yet it was Garrett Sorenson as Steve Wozniak who came closest to establishing himself as the opera’s tragic figure. His anarchic glee at inventing a machine to cheat the phone company and his enthusiasm over the prototype (‘an interface only a motherboard could love’) gave the opera’s first half its excitement of discovery, and his speech to Jobs at the crisis point – a riff on the old ‘you’ve become the thing you hated’ accusation – was one of the evening’s most moving scenes. Mr Sorenson’s lightly heroic tenor also proved an ideal fit with the focussed baritone of Mr Parks and the moments when they sang together were unfailingly delightful.
If Chrisann Brennan – the mother of Jobs’ first daughter – was less of a tragic figure, it may have been due more to the libretto than the performances of Jessica E. Jones who, in a strange-but-sweet love monologue, offered a detailed enumeration of Jobs’ myriad personal flaws. The evening’s most compelling performance, however, belonged to Sasha Cooke as Laurene Powell Jobs, the wife/saviour whose attempts to locate the humanity beneath her husband’s façade of genius gave the opera the heart it might have otherwise lacked. The balance of bitter irony and earnest expression in her excellent closing monologue – delivered directly to the audience – turned a potentially gimmicky idea into a surprisingly potent finale.
Almost everyone in the audience will have been alive in the era of Steve Jobs, and the vast majority will have entered the theatre with some opinions about the man and his products; despite the artistry of Mr Bates’ score and Mr Campbell’s libretto, one’s appreciation of the opera will depend ultimately on the extent to which they are willing to subscribe to the myth of its title character. As a piece of contemporary musical drama, however, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was a hugely engrossing work, as polished, precise and elegant as any of the computers and phones that formed the backdrop to the story.