Review: THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS Sells Out at Santa Fe Opera

By: Jul. 23, 2017

BWW Review: THE (R)EVOLUTION OF Steve Jobs Throws both a Dramatic and a Musical Punch.

On July 22, 2017, Santa Fe Opera presented the world premiere of Mason Bates and Mark Campbell's opera THE (R)EVOLUTION OF Steve Jobs. The new piece was co-commissioned by Santa Fe, Seattle, and San Francisco Operas. The day before the premiere, Santa Fe Opera emailed the work's libretto to critics, so we had an idea of the text before the performance, but words are only one aspect of this fascinating work.

Director Kevin Newbury used a great deal of new technology in telling Jobs' story. In eighteen short scenes, a prologue and an epilogue, he covered important events in Steve's life by touching on specific dates in the sixties, seventies, eighties, nineties and early twenty-first century. Since there is no intermission in this ninety-minute piece, the drama constantly builds to its eventual climax with the death of the hero, and the denouement leaves the audience to contemplate his values and the effect his life had on all of us.

Scenic Designer Victoria "Vita" Tzykun built light boxes that somewhat resemble the exteriors of Apple stores. Projection designers from 59 Productions, and Lighting Designer Japhy Weideman made them into a constant kaleidoscopic display of eye candy that ranged from lines reminiscent of colorful flashing circuit boards to murals of flowering trees. The sound design by Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Losch ensured even balances between singers and orchestra.

The opera opens with twangy music and blocks of light in the center of the stage. The blocks move and turn around to become shelves in a small garage. There, Kelly Markgraf as Steve's father celebrates Steve's tenth birthday by giving him a workbench. By this time the twangy music has morphed into a full-fledged orchestration of the opera's first theme.

From the Prologue, we jump forty-two years into the future where Jobs, sung by Edward Parks, is launching "one device" that will revolutionize technology. He sings "In one hand, all you need, communication, information, communication," and the chorus of onlookers takes up the call to buy new devices. Unfortunately, it is at that point that he suffers shortness of breath and realizes that he is ill.

Steve's former mentor, K?bun Chino Otogawa, sung with resonant low notes by Wei Wu, always tries to keep Steve's ideas grounded, but neither he nor Sasha Cooke as Steve's loving wife Laurene can get Steve to slow down. In another scene, we visit a calligraphy class where Steve learns the beauty of Japanese aesthetics from mezzo-soprano Mariya Kaganskaya as the teacher.

Scene Five presents a welcome bit of comic relief. In it, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak "Woz" sing of a blue box that reproduces the tones needed to put through long distance calls. Jobs and Woz have learned to do it with Ma Bell's own sounds and no money. The implications are tremendous. They sing of slingshots that take down corporate Goliaths. Later Steve Jobs and soprano girlfriend Chrisann played by Jessica E. Jones, make love under the flowering trees of a California orchard. Not long after that, however, Steve meets Laurene and they fall in love to the sounds of her soothing mezzo voice.

Steve and Woz sing a duet about "one more thing" that a computer needs. They argue and Woz quits the company. Soon after, the board of directors demotes Steve Jobs who also leaves the company. Only then does Steve begin to realize that his ego is out of control. In a duet with Laurene, he confronts his mortality. After an orchestral interlude that I expect will be played by many a symphony orchestra, K?bun marries Steve and Laurene in a Buddhist ceremony. They do not have many more years together, however. The opera's finale is a memorial service for Steve. Woz sings "Gone too soon, way too soon," and as the opera comes to a close, Laurene slyly asks the audience not to spend all their time looking at their phones.

Mason Bates has written intense, increasingly dramatic music to Mark Campbell's unusual, non-linear libretto. The composer used electronics and the guitar to represent Steve and his busy life while smooth but intense stringed instrument music tells of Laurene's calm personality. K?bun's status is brought to mind by prayer bowls and Thai gongs. Bates created a separate world for each of the main characters and Maestro Michael Christie did a fabulous job of integrating Bates' electronica with the orchestral instruments.

These motifs and many more equally fascinating passages of music add up to a ninety-minute opera that kept members of the Santa Fe audience on the edges of their seats. I enjoyed this evening immensely and hope I can get to San Francisco to see what they do with this fine new opera at the War Memorial Opera House in the 2019-2020 season.

Photo Credit: Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera 2017


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