Opera: Bates & Campbell / The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

Santa Fe Opera
Mason Bates & Mark Campbell
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs), Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs), Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogawa), Garrett Sorenson (Steve Wozniak), Kelly Markgraf (Paul Jobs), Mariya Kaganskaya (Teacher), Jessica E. Jones (Chrisann Brennan), Michael Christie, Robert Tweten (Conductors).

In 2017 composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell unveiled their ambitious modern opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs a work centered around Apple Inc. founder Steve Jobs and how the devices his company created transformed the world. On the face of it this is an overly geeked-out concept, but it really is a grand story. A tale of the massive power of computing and communications put in the hands of all humanity, of technological transformation and behavioral shift that has no precedent in human civilization. 

So why am I digging in my heels at the thought of actually sitting through this goddamn thing? 

Since I can’t find a full video of a performance of this opera I can take it in bites, which is more workable. So I devoured over an hour of various YouTube clips (most of which are from the 2017 Santa Fe Opera premiere) and now I’ve got a pretty good overview of this work. 

The Revolution of Steve Jobs opera - Bates and Campbell

The harmonic language appeals to me. Nice string writing. I also like the synthesizer swoops and new-agey steel string guitar arrangements that weave in and out of the traditional orchestration. Not my kind of guitar playing but it’s a ringer for the culture of Jobs’ era. The overture was very nice except for some weird percussion in the mix. I don’t know what it is exactly – sounds like someone slapping a couple of rubber shoes together. My initial thought is that this percussion part is supposed to conjure the image of a tech CEO killing it on the squash court. 

The libretto, though… eh. Really geeky. I admit that it cannot be less geeky than it is and still tell the story – so there’s that. But I already hear enough of that tech jazz in the course of daily living, so it doesn’t strike me as much of an uplifting, energizing artistic experience to have to sit in the cool of the evening just to hear that stuff all over again booming from the maw of a professional baritone.

The Steve Wozniak character is written in verse as some kind of nerdbag Sancho Panza following Jobs about with support and criticism and that doesn’t help either. 

To give an idea of the poetic content of the opera… Here’s an excerpt of a solo from the Jobs character: 

Type type type type swipe,
Cheer the game.
Play a game.
Send a card.
Mend a heart.
Buy a tie.
Learn some Thai.
Order Thai.
Miss your kids?
Miss your wife?
Miss your home?
Miss your life?

I really do like the minimalist brevity of this kind of writing. Nice that they’ve kept it light. I’m just not rocked by poetry that describes a hardware purchase. 

The set design of the Santa Fe world premiere was a fairly straight depiction of the tech workbenches, office environments and exhibition halls you’d find in the real world of Jobs. Nothing I saw was over-stylized; it’s very effective for evoking the time and place of the main character. Opera company set designers might have trouble reinterpreting this because excessive abstraction could confuse the historical context. 

And as I feel that anyone who salivates over a ticket to a tech convention is a twerp beyond all redemption, that is a problem for me. The production design of this opera has to play to the nerdiest fetishes of the target audience with a set piece that frames a tech bro lecturing to you about how you’ll be left behind with the wretched refuse of civilization if you don’t buy some expensive upgrade on a piece of tech hardware. 

Add to this that the myth of the tech billionaire is not as romantic and inspiring one as it was a decade ago (or even at the time of the 2017 premiere of this opera) thanks to the bulk of those guys being exposed over time as being total douchebags. The richest and most malevolent of them is a public menace, while the most benign waffles over hard issues like a spineless, cowering Roman emperor, and even the one who trends highest on the nice-guy-CEO index gets compared to Ron Burgundy

So from all this I have little patience for sitting in a room for hours forced to stare in rapt fascination while some classically-trained singer warbles about the miracle of faster processing power while standing in front of a video wall of moving iPhones. I find it even less appealing than I thought it would be. 

Final thought: I bet Steve Jobs wouldn’t have guessed that a facsimile of his jeans and black turtleneck combo would be in a garment bag fulla mothballs hanging in the NY Met’s wardrobe warehouse!