Monday, September 11, 2017

Cathartic moment missing in Steve Jobs opera

Edward Parks | Photo credit: Ken Howard
The buzz from a standing-room-only crowd charged-up the atmosphere at Santa Fe Opera with heightened anticipation on the opening night (July 22) of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” the first-ever opera written by American composer Mason Bates. Blending electronic and acoustic styles, Bates told the story of one of the most iconic figures in modern technology in a way that was engaging and easy to digest but still came up short. Sure the 90-minute, one-act opera succinctly conveyed that Jobs was a prime mover in the technological revolution, especially in regards to the smart phone, but I was not totally convinced that he evolved all that much from a hard-driving jerk to a real person. The opera didn’t have a big cathartic moment, so the emotional impact at the end – when Jobs accepted death – was stunted.

With a libretto written by Pulitzer-prize-winner Mark Campbell, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” effectively used a series of scenes to jump forwards and backwards in time to relate the life of the brilliant and complex man. The first vignette took channeled back to Jobs’s childhood when his father gave him a tool box to make things. The next scene travelled to the 2007 product launch of the iPhone (called “one device” in the opera in order to avoid trademark litigation) and later scenes took place at Reed College, an apple orchard, the Los Altos Zen Center, Apple offices in Cupertino, Yosemite National Park, and the Stanford University Chapel. Along the way, we learned how Jobs drove himself and others ruthlessly, got married, became ill with cancer, and accepted his mortality, reconciling it all with his Buddhist faith.
Garrett Sorenson and Edward Parks | Photo credit: Ken Howard
Edward Parks portrayed Jobs exceptionally well, singing with vigor that you would expect from a Silicon Valley mogul. The audience – which had a lot of Apple enthusiasts – gave him thunderous applause when he stepped out on stage to promote the “one device” – almost as if he were the real Steve Jobs. Sasha Cooke in the role of Jobs’s wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, and Wei Wu in the role of Jobs’s spiritual mentor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa, created a steadying, warm, and thoughtful presence that became a counterweight to Jobs’s high-octane drive. Garrett Sorenson added some humor yet packed plenty of gutsy punch as Steve Wozniak, who co-invented the original Apple products with Jobs. Jessica Jones had all too brief a turn as Chrisann Brennan, the girlfriend of Jobs, and Kelly Markgraf had just the right amount of depth in voice and presence as Paul Jobs, the father of Steve Jobs.

Bates took full advantage with this opera to demonstrate his prowess in merging electronic and acoustic sounds. That meant, of course, that the voices would be amplified in order to be heard over the loudest sections. I am not a fan of voices that have been boosted artificially, but I have to admit that Santa Fe Opera did an outstanding job with the mics. Bates, himself, took a position in the orchestra, as master-on-the-fly mixer of the electronica. Michael Christie managed to conduct the musical enterprise outstandingly. The music was tinged with minimalism, especially whenever technology was described, but whenever the story tackled human relationships, Bates found his lyric side, which was refreshing.
Edward Parks and Jessica Jones | Photo credit: Ken Howard
Kevin Newberry’s stage directions worked well to reveal some truth of each character so that the audience didn’t get lost with all of the scene and time changes. It seemed that Newberry was limited by the libretto since there was no dramatic way to convey the evolution part of the story. The scenes, designed by Victoria “Vita” Tzykun were superb – with the best ones that depicted the “one device” launch and situations in the high tech world.
Wei Wu and Edward Parks | Photo credit Ken Howard
Bates and Campbell did fairly well with boiling down the story of a complex and driven man to create the opera, which was not meant to be a documentary, but in doing so, they had to leave out a lot of information about Jobs (such as the paternity lawsuit that he lost over the child that he had with Brennan) that might have helped to generate a bigger emotional lift or descent at the end. As an extra note of interest, after the opera, I talked with some Apple workers and found out that they revered Jobs to this day because he returned to Apple and saved the company. They were disappointed that the opera didn’t mention that. For them, he would always be a hero.
Edward Parks and Sasha Cooke | Photo credit: Ken Howard
In any case, because Santa Fe Opera co-produced “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” with San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera, it will surely be tweaked and presented again by those opera companies.

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