It seemed like half of San Francisco turned up last night at the War Memorial Opera House for the long-awaited California premiere of Mason Bates’s recently co-commissioned The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Boston listeners can view the full electro-acoustic spectacle this Wednesday when the 100-minute production is livestreamed HERE and you can read the complete program HERE. On which Apple device will you view it?
This one act, engaging, mostly tonal, English-language opera is a dreamlike series of twenty scenes based on the life of innovator and entrepreneur Steve Jobs (1955-2011). It seamlessly blends technology, traditional operatic voices, and a full orchestra enhanced by the presence of the composer himself playing live electronics. The work was commissioned by San Francisco Opera, The Santa Fe Opera, and Seattle Opera with support from Cal Performances and co-produced with Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Rescheduled from its original COVID-delayed 2020 date, this production premiered first at Santa Fe Opera in 2017, was recorded in 2018, and then won four 2019 Grammys (winning Best Opera Recording, Best Contemporary Classical Recording, and Best Engineered Classical Recording). This month’s San Francisco run is conducted by Michael Christie (who also led the recording) and feature a set by Victoria (Vita) Tzykun with projections by Ben Pearcy and costumes by Paul Carey (based on the personal styles of the actual people concerned, including Jobs’ famous turtleneck and jeans). Director Kevin Newbury modeled his staging on a detailed study of Jobs’s public presentations and carefully curated product demonstrations.
Baritone John Moore and mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke made a dramatic, convincing couple as Steve and Laurene Powell Jobs. They led the vibrant cast through four decades of scenes set in Silicon Valley, Yosemite Valley, Oregon, and the Santa Cruz mountains, and the performance was followed by an 80s after-party in the lower-level restaurant of the SF Opera House. Composer Mason Bates remarked this week about his leading man: “I am so grateful to have been working with baritone Moore on this piece since Seattle Opera’s production in 2019. Since then, he has brought it to so many cities, from Atlanta to Kansas City to Austin and Salt Lake City. It’s been a gift to watch John’s performance as Steve Jobs over the years.”
The journey to this night started nearly ten years ago, when Juilliard graduate Mason Bates chose the Dylan- and Bach-loving tech genius as the subject for his next project (explore his thinking HERE). The composer remarked, “Operas through the centuries are filled with creative characters — from Bohème’s starving artists to Death in Venice’s haunted author. About ten years ago I started dreaming about an opera that would examine a different kind of creative individual: the creative technologist. Living in the Bay Area for a decade leading up to that moment, I became familiar with the fascinating breed of creative people whose innovations transform civilization. And no one better exemplified this than Steve Jobs.” Listen to his brief discussion of early Macintosh sounds and their impact on the score HERE.
Bates’s compositions are best-known to San Francisco Symphony and Chicago Symphony audiences (where he served as Composer-in-Residence), and he has taught composition at the SF Conservatory of Music since 2014. While completing his PhD in Composition at UC-Berkeley, he won the Rome Prize and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship. Several memorable western/cowboy themes (depicting Jobs’s mind at work), motives from soaring ariosos, and Asian/Buddhist orchestral timbres (in dream sequences) from The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs also appear in one of Bates’s newest concert pieces: Rhapsody of Steve Jobs, commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra (watch his remarks on those themes HERE). His interest in integrating classical music into the digital age has continued with “Philharmonia Fantastique: The Making of the Orchestra,” a 2022 animated guide to the orchestra à la Fantasia (available on Apple TV, watch to an excerpt HERE) which he composed the score and served as executive producer. The Metropolitan Opera just commissioned his The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (Act One was completed this June), and he scored Gus Van Sant’s 2015 film set in Japan: The Sea of Trees starring Matthew McConaughey and Naomi Watts (listen to an excerpt HERE). Bates’s use of solo flutes in their lowest register is an important feature of this film score and of the Buddhist dream sequences in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. The composer’s Facebook page HERE includes excerpts from his current classical projects (including new choral recordings and shorter instrumental works in progress).
Working in clubs as DJ Masonic, Bates is also the Artistic Director of Mercury Soul (video HERE), an organization producing immersive fusions of DJs and classical music in clubs (webpage HERE). As a DJ, he was a featured performer last Friday at the San Francisco Mint along with DJ Justin Reed, baritone John Moore, soprano Marnie Breckenridge, the Friction Quartet, and popup performances of works by composers from San Francisco Opera’s 101st season, including Handel and excerpts from Omar by Rhiannon Giddens and Michael Abels. OperaWire featured a perspective on Bates’s electro-acoustic approach by baritone Joseph Lattanzi, who sang the role of Jobs’ father in this production, in a recent interview HERE: “I think I’m most excited to see how the audience reacts – it’s different from anything else I’ve seen on the operatic stage with the integration of electronic sounds and beats patched live during the performance by composer Mason Bates in the orchestra pit! The orchestration is magical, and I think it’ll wash over an operatic audience in ways that are familiar from our everyday digital lives but new to the opera house.”
San Francisco Symphony Chorus bass and former Apple engineer Mike Prichard commented:
My main musical critique would be the lack of a real aria for Laurene; if ever there were a character that had earned one, it was her, and the libretto certainly serves her well, it was crying out for Mason’s ample skill to deliver a true operatic aria. Musically, however, the piece was really a pleasure from beginning to end. My weathered apprehension about the compositionally insidious need to prove ‘modernity’ by straying too far from tonality and thus accessibility (and I’d argue enjoyability) withered quickly in the first scenes. This work provides refreshing, comforting evidence that opera can still be beautiful and new at the same time. There is plenty of uncharted tonal richness out there, especially when popular musical forms from the last half century are embraced rather than being tortuously avoided. Mason’s use of acoustic guitar was genius, echoing the sounds of Apple Corporate ‘World Wide Developer’ conferences and internal company meetings in ways that he may not even be aware of, but which tugged mightily at the fond memories of this former Apple employee.
I was a bit perplexed that despite plenty of thoughtful use of synthesized electronic sounds throughout, at one of the most pivotal moments in the garage duet in the garage about the Apple II, at the climactic moment that they decided to add a speaker for “sound”, we didn’t get to hear any of that classic 1-bit, square-wave audio sound so familiar to those of us that matured in that very era; a missed opportunity. The aria ‘Something We Play’ was really the ultimate condensation of the essence of Steve’s vision, and Mason didn’t disappoint with the best aria in the opera masterfully sung with an awestruck joy but also vivid confidence by John Moore, who managed to channel Jobs’ body language even down to the occasional forward-leaning pacing without excessive use of cartoonish poses… just enough to really cement the illusion. The transparency of his singing really highlighted emotions expressed without ever feeling like an operatic ‘park and bark.’
Sasha Cooke brought a realistic earthiness to Laurene which amplified the sense of grounding that Steve got from her (in addition to the inspiration). It’s wonderful that Mason really let her use her full vocal range to maximum effect. Wei Wu’s profound depths seem to know no bounds and the deep, dark color of his voice resonates with gravitas giving true weight to his admonishments. It’s one of the lowest tessituras for a role I’ve ever heard; while there may be some basso profundo parts with a single lower note, Kōbun’s entire role seems to spend most of its time an octave below middle-C and Wei is really up to the challenge, enveloping Mark Campbell’s words with a sound that is both impossibly low and deep and yet seemingly in the middle of his range.
Opera (especially French Baroque opera) has often incorporated the latest technology into production design. Visible machines raising and lowering singers were crucial elements in 17th-century opera, and early Italian comedic opera played with movable doors and doorways to enhance the audience’s ability to imagine changing operatic settings. In some way, King Louis XIV’s outsized influence on French operatic and balletic spectacle, in which he was a featured dancer, provides an early model for the kind of design sense and presentational style in Steve Jobs’ carefully curated keynotes (“Steve-notes”) and annual company meetings. Louis XIV appeared in distinctive costumes (such as a golden “Sun King” with special attention to mirrored “Lumiere” candle effects), much as Jobs appeared in a trademark black turtleneck against a simple black background. Louis XIV specified ways that he wanted Lully to use instruments, create new musical landscapes, and work with new kinds of stage machinery to display his power (“Puissance” and “Plaisir” effects: ascending to the stage from below through better-engineered trapdoors), similar to the interactions Steve Jobs had with Steve Wozniak during product design and development periods.
Composer Mason Bates recently praised the design of this production: “After two years that have seen a glorious new production tour through five cities, it’ll be thrilling to see the original production on the grand stage of SFO. This production is renowned for its mix of cutting-edge projections and old-fashioned stagecraft, exemplified by the six huge monoliths [looking more like Android phones than iPhones – LDSP] that combine in endless ways to form the set. The walls of Young Steve’s garage fly apart after the opening scene to create every subsequent scene! The opera also feels even more resonant in 2023 than it did six years ago, with its message of ‘Look up, look out’ extremely relevant in a post-pandemic world. After the challenging years of lockdowns and digital life, many people have embraced the return to true connection. That’s the message of the opera, as sung by Laureen Powell Jobs in her final aria.” Listen to world-class mezzo Sasha Cooke accompanying herself in an early version HERE.
Since the debut of the original production, a second visual design has been also making the rounds (see images and trailer HERE) of Atlanta (see this discussion with director Tomer Zvulun HERE), Kansas City, and Calgary (review HERE).
John Moore as Steve Jobs, Wei Wu as Kōbun Chino Otogawa, and Sasha Cooke as Laurene Powell Jobs (Cory Weaver photo)
THE SCENARIO AND TEXT
New York librettist Mark Campbell (founder of the $7,000 annual Campbell Librettist Prize described HERE), was approached by Mason Bates to research both the technological and the operatic/personal aspects of Jobs’ life. He read Walter Isaacson’s 2011 authorized biography (HERE), explored personal relationships that dated back to Jobs’ student days (with his machinist father Paul, the engineering genius Steve Wozniak, and artist Chrisann Brennan) and researched Jobs’ lifelong experience with the philosophy and calligraphy of Sōtō Zen Buddhism and the ensō symbol (explained HERE).
Laurene Jobs and Buddhist spiritual advisor Kōbun Chino Otogawa emerge as significant figures in Jobs’ personal growth, and in this opera, they are more often heard in dialogue, rather than soaring, dramatic arias. In a remarkable recording-studded twelve-minute video created by Austin Opera with recordings from Seattle Opera (watch HERE), librettist Mark Campbell discusses his circular, non-chronological conception for the opera, inspired by the Buddhist calligraphic, circular symbol called the ensō. Campbell points out, “Since no one can draw a perfect circle, the ensō celebrates human imperfection. This seemed like an apt symbol for an imagined narrative about Steve Jobs, a man who strove in his work to hide or eliminate chaos in his life.” The circular narrative is a poignant reference to the radiused (rounded) corners of many iconic Apple products and the circular forms apparent in the hockey-puck shaped mouse for the colorful 1998 iMac, the “Yoyo style” AC power adapter for the 1999 iBook, the white flying saucer-shaped Airport, Apple AirTags, and the architecture of Apple stores in Bangkok and Singapore, the giant torus-shaped Apple Park corporate headquarters (Cupertino, 2017), and the new glass spiral staircase entrance in Boston’s Boylston Street Apple store. Jobs described the design of Apple Park in his last public address (to the Cupertino City Council, seen HERE) as having “a gorgeous courtyard in the middle, and a lot more. It’s a circle, so it’s curved all the way round. This is not the cheapest way to build something. Every pane of glass in the main building will be curved. We have a shot at building the best office building in the world.”
The narrative is framed by Prologue and Epilogue scenes with Paul Jobs, set in the family’s Los Altos, CA garage, on Steve’s tenth birthday in 1965: the workbench he received as a birthday present is “a fine place to start.” You might expect frequent references to groundbreaking machines like the iconic Apple II (1977), Macintosh (1984), iMac (1988), and iPhone (2007), alongside scenes showing the founding of corporate giants like Apple, NeXT, and Pixar, but this opera takes a more circumspect, emotional tour of Jobs’ life, loves, motivations, and achievements. Mike Prichard commented, “I actually liked it a lot. THERE were ample liberties taken in the name of drama/opera, but in the end, I either agreed with or wasn’t particularly bothered by these deviations or inaccuracies. The essence of Steve Jobs’ character was well communicated. My main over-arching quarrel with the general tone was that it didn’t celebrate his victories enough. The 1984 introduction of the Mac was such a singular moment in technological history, and such a tumultuous but ultimately victorious point in his career that it warranted at least a mention and a date. Focusing on the iPhone was certainly a good choice, but it didn’t need to be at the exclusion of his other (first chapter) triumph of something well and truly his (the Mac).”
One of Bates’s great successes in this 90-minute opera is his writing for the character of Kōbun Chino Otogawa, based on Jobs’ conversations with a reminiscence of his former spiritual mentor from the Tassajara Buddhist Center in Carmel, CA. Wei Wu’s spectacularly clear and resonant bass lent these scenes a Verdian authority and imbued the dialogue with profundity and poignancy. In the third, seventh, and thirteen scenes Jobs encounters the spirit of Kōbun Chino on meditative walks as they discuss process, learning from mistakes, simplicity, destiny, and life paths: “You can’t connect the dots going forward. You can only connect them going backward.” Watch Scene 3 HERE and part of Scene 13 HERE (Santa Fe Opera, 2017, featuring Wei Wu).
The first major scenes take place in 2007, during the launch of the first iPhone (“One device”). If you weren’t there for the original events, take some time to compare Jobs’ groundbreaking reveal of the iPhone at MacWorld 2007 (HERE) with this opera’s dreamlike depiction of the same event (watch the Overture and Scene One HERE). In Scene 2, Steve retreats to his office at 1 Infinite Loop in Cupertino and Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs) sings a compelling arioso in which she tries to convince him to return home to rest, after experiencing stomach pains. Her voice soars again over scenes eight, fourteen, and fifteen, set in 1989 at the Stanford event when Laurene and Jobs first meet and fall in love. Kōbun is present as spirit guide and narrator, to remind Steve that Laurene also helped keep his ego in check. In scene sixteen, just after the triumphant 2007 MacWorld presentation, Jobs returns home to find Laurene waiting for him. She confronts Steve and gets him to accept his illness and mortality in another intimate scene.
Early in the fractured narrative, Mark Campbell’s libretto flashes back to 1973-1974, when Jobs first explored calligraphy at Reed College, Oregon (inspired by the elegance and simplicity of the ensō) and product development with his best friend Steve Wozniak. Texas-born tenor Bille Bruley showed off his comic timing a high, ringing tone in a bluesy duet (“Ma Bell was just brought to her knees”) in which the pair celebrate Woz’s phone phreaking “blue box” and their favorite musicians and writers (“That’s one for Abbie Hoffman… Cesar Chavez… Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas,”) and rejoice in the idea that “all you ever need to take a corporate goliath” is “a decent slingshot” (while Jobs holds up the box, wire, and speaker or the “blue box” in a slingshot pose). Moore and Bruley’s voices blended perfectly, and their stage chemistry made this one of the most successful moments of music blending with words. Watch Scene 5 HERE (Santa Fe Opera, 2017).
In a nod to 1970s counterculture, scene six depicts Jobs and his high school/college girlfriend Chrisann Brennan on an acid trip. Newcomer Olivia Smith was convincing and poignant as Chrisann; as a first-year Adler fellow at SFOpera and former Merola Program soprano, local audiences have applauded her performances of Mozart, Bizet, and Golijov.
John Moore’s crisp diction and resonant lyricism was particularly effective in Jobs’ LSD-informed aria during which he imagined Cupertino’s apple orchard evolving into an orchestra, playing Bach. Scene Nine brought back the same pair, expanding upon the moment in 1976 that Woz presented the Apple II and Chrisann confronted Jobs with their unplanned pregnancy. Bates brings back musical themes from scene six and develops into a fuller tone poem, over which Jobs dreams of the (smaller, handheld) computers of the future as “something we play.” All of this dialogue is imaginary, but readers interested in the actual subtleties of this early relationship should read 2013 Chrisann’s book “The Bite in the Apple: A Memoir of My Life with Steve Jobs” (HERE) and their daughter Lisa Brennan-Jobs’s emotional 2018 memoir Small Fry (HERE).
Scenes 10 through 12 jump around during the 1980s, presenting brief looks into Jobs’s and his wife Laurene’s Palo Alto home (discussing artistic inspiration), his tendency to drive away early friends (a clever duet between Chrisann and Woz), and the challenges that led the Apple board to demote him (the opera skips the next successes of his career like the development of NeXT computers and his sponsorship of the division of Lucasfilm that eventually became Pixar).
The most tender moments at the end of the opera are brief and spare: Scene 17 is an intimate recreation of Jobs’s and Laurene’s 1991 wedding at the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite Valley. Kōbun marries them, and they express love and gratitude for human connection. Kōbun’s 1992 death (by drowning) is revealed, prompting a meditation on mortality that segues into scene 18, a Dickensian visit with Jobs to his own 2011 memorial service. This imagined situation contrasts humor (Jobs protests a few production elements of the service), poignancy (Kōbun tells him to be still, to simplify) and reflection (Laurene and Woz muse about Jobs’s influence and legacy). Those hoping for a fuller presentation of Steve Wozniak’s view of Jobs’s contributions (and the challenges of working for and with him) would benefit from reading “iWoz: From Computer Geek to Cult Icon: How I Invented the Personal Computer, co-founded Apple, and had fun doing it.” (2007, HERE).
Mason Bates’ next opera will premiere at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 2025. Mark Campbell’s next libretto project, a full-length historical oratorio entitled Émigré, set in 1930s Shanghai with music by Los Angeles-based composer Aaron Zigman and additional lyrics by Brock Walsh, will premiere in Shanghai in November and at the New York Philharmonic in February 2023 (info HERE).
San Francisco Opera offers livestreams for each of its productions during the 2023–24 season. The Wednesday, September 27 performance of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be livestreamed at 7:30 p.m. PST. The performance will also be available to watch on demand for 48 hours beginning on Thursday, September 28 at 10 a.m. PST. Tickets for the livestream and limited on-demand viewing are $27.50. For tickets and more information about livestreams, visit sfopera.com/digital.