Mason Bates, composer, and Mark Campbell, librettist, had a triumph on Saturday night with the world premiere of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at the Santa Fe Opera. The audience let out a whoop as soon as the music ended, and the curtain calls were downright raucous. Even before opening night, demand was so great that the company added an additional performance — which is not common for any opera, let alone a new work; and the opera is being recorded for CD release. In short: a lot of people really liked this work. It gives me no pleasure to say that I found it tedious — though it certainly had some good music.
Jobs’s life has already provided fodder for at least two feature films and several books, and if not everyone knows all the details, the opera’s creators could assume that the audience would know at least the basic stations of the story (which boil down to, “Apple products have been a big success”). Campbell, smartly, sliced and diced the events of Jobs’s life, frequently cutting back and forth from one year to another, to create a dramatic arc. What disappointed me was that the arc seemed so canned, as if it proceeded on the idea that opera is a parable with the task of delivering significant Truths — or cliches — about the human condition. Jobs struggles with facing his own mortality. Jobs’s erstwhile partner, Steve Wozniak (“Woz”), accuses him of going establishment (“You’ve become one of the people we hated!”). Jobs’s wife and widow, Laurene, after explaining that he finally learned to be human, reminds us to look up from our iPhones and appreciate the world around us. Surely we could go a bit deeper, or fresher, than this.
We aren’t even spared the trope, familiar from so many books and movies, of the inspired thrill of the creator, as Jobs compares computers to musical instruments — “something we play” — in an extended monologue. This, at least, could be construed as an inside nod to the opera’s composer, Bates, the Kennedy Center’s composer in residence, who does indeed play an Apple computer on stage in many performances of his orchestral works.
Music is, of course, much of the point of any opera, and Bates’s score was certainly the evening’s strongest aspect — particularly the extended orchestral passages, conducted with energy by Michael Christie, when the composer was able to free himself from the restrictions of “opera-ese.” It’s important for composers to be familiar with the forms and building blocks of opera, but I wish that opera didn’t so often feel like a uniform that a talented composer felt obliged to assume: Bates executed arias and recitatives and ensembles with facility, but not much illumination. His signature propulsive drive did emerge in some of Jobs’s music, and in some of the big choral numbers, but due in part to the libretto, the situations felt more constructed than genuinely involving, and there was a kind of sameness to the dramatic temperature even as the action swung from Intimate Moment to High Point. The opera’s big dramatic climax was a flashback to the events leading up to Jobs’s departure from Apple in 1985, before he returned in 1997 and began releasing the string of successful products that now define the company. Tragic flaw? turning point? It felt more like an excuse for a cathartic dramatic scene, presenting events that the audience already knew had been long resolved.
The goal, I think, was to flesh out Jobs’s character. But character remained a problem for the opera as a whole — it needed more of it. Although Bates took pains to differentiate each role with individual sound worlds, the characters felt more like opera tropes than like living, breathing people. Edward Parks, a baritone, sounded vocally a little tired and pale in the punishing role of Jobs, who is on stage in every scene. Garrett Sorenson was an ardent complainer as he waded through Woz’s long roster of recriminations.
And the women remained cardboard silhouettes defined by their relationships to Jobs, with Laurene as a combined muse and helpmeet. Sasha Cooke provided her, at least, with a warm mezzo voice and earnest delivery so that it actually sounded as if she were saying things that were meaningful — exhorting Jobs, for instance, not to create if he didn’t take joy in the process. (I find this achingly trite and not representative of the reality of a creative person’s life, but maybe it’s a thing that people want to hear said.) And Chrisann Brennan, the mother of the daughter Jobs long sought to repudiate, was no more than a pretty wronged voice, sung with lovely tones by Jessica Jones.
An exception was the character who sounds the worst on paper: Kobun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’s spiritual adviser and mentor, who appears in the opera as a figure from the Beyond, continuing to advise Jobs after his own death. Against all odds and despite the challenging racial issues involved in putting a mystical Oriental figure on stage, both music and libretto took on a little spring in their depiction, with a sound palette involving Tibetan prayer bowls and slight electronic enhancement, and a few moments of humor; and the Chinese bass Wei Wu almost stole the show. Familiar to Washington audiences from his years in the Domingo-Cafritz program and repeated appearances since, he seems to have realized his considerable potential, singing with a rich gorgeous sound that never flagged, backed up by a twinkle in his eye that made this character a delight.
As for Kevin Newbury’s production, it sought to replicate the luxurious minimalism of Apple products, with video projections by 59 Productions of familiar computer imagery — circuits and wiring and lots of numbers — or evocative bits of scene-setting, like the exterior of Jobs’s childhood home. One of the initial scenes was inadvertently symbolic. Whether because they didn’t have the rights to the Apple logo or because the company was loath to offer an extended ad for Apple, the projections, as the iPhone was unveiled, showed a clunkier phone with a different logo, and eventually filled the screen with ugly icons and user interfaces — just the kind of thing that Apple products mark a step away from. In trying to depict a facsimile of reality, the opera only underlined its own clumsiness — the reality it’s based on is smoother, more sophisticated and simply better.
After hearing the advance buzz and the rapturous reception on opening night, I realize I am not representing the conventional wisdom about this opera. I love hearing an audience excited, and I would love it if that were a sign that this work, a co-production with the Seattle Opera and the San Francisco Opera, has legs. I just wish I could have shared in the excitement.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs has six more performances through August 25 at the Santa Fe Opera.