BWW Interview: Kevin Newbury of THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS at Santa Fe Opera

Kevin Newbury is a theatre, opera and film director who has staged over sixty original productions for numerous opera companies, festivals, and symphonies. Especially committed to developing new material, he has directed more than two-dozen world premieres of operas and plays. Kevin's production of Oscar for Santa Fe Opera and Opera Philadelphia was nominated for Best World Premiere at the 2014 International Opera Awards and his 2015 production of Bel Canto for Lyric Opera of Chicago recently aired on PBS Great Performances. This summer he will direct the world premiere of Mason Bates and Mark Campbell's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe Opera. His future plans include directing the world premiere of Mohammed Fairouz and Mohammed Hanif's Bhutto at Pittsburgh Opera in 2018.

Q: What are the first decisions you make when starting to work on the production of a world premiere?

KN: It depends on how early I become part of the process. Sometimes, the first step is finding a composer and librettist team, at other times it's hiring the cast and designers. My first question is always: Why tell this story now?

Q: Is there much difference in the decisions you make about the production of an opera and the production of a play?

KN: Whether it's a play, opera or film, I always focus on the best way to tell the story. Opera companies tend to plan much further ahead of time, but my approach is similar across all mediums.

Q: What are your considerations in selecting designers?

KN: I always choose the design team with input from the writers and the producing organization. I base my decision about all design personnel on whose aesthetic best matches the material, often considering which team would work best together on a given project. Honestly, I want to be inspired throughout the process and I am fortunate to have several designers in each area of expertise with whom I enjoy collaborating on a regular basis.

Q: How much of a restriction does their voice production put on your direction of singing actors?

KN: Very little. The best singers today are also great actors and are used to being very physical onstage. Sometimes in a big opera house I need to be conscious of placing certain singers downstage for big vocal moments, but otherwise I direct singers the same way I direct non-singing actors. Occasionally I have to teach singers to act, but overall, singers today come with a full arsenal of acting and movement skills.

Q: How do you keep repetitive arias from becoming visually boring?

KN: I look for actions for the singers to perform. What are they trying to accomplish in a given aria? Who else can be onstage to interact with them? Because much of directing is about transitions, I often shift the physical world of the space through scenery, video, and lighting to help keep the action moving.

Q: Of the following new operas that you have directed, which ones did you find most interesting? Fellow Travelers, Kansas City Choir Boy, O Columbia, The Manchurian Candidate, Doubt, Bel Canto, Oscar.

KN: That is a tough question. That's like asking a parent to name her favorite child. I enjoy directing provocative shows that ask questions and address living in the world today. All of the operas listed above have a strong resonance in the twenty-first century. Fellow Travelers is particularly close to my heart because I was involved from inception through creation, and because it addresses an often overlooked period in our history, the Lavender Scare during the McCarthy era. As a gay man, it is particularly important to me to honor the generation that came before us and share its stories with the world. Your list includes many of my favorite shows from my entire career.

Q: Is there much difference between directing an adaptation of material from another art form and an original opera libretto?

KN: Again, the goal is focused, theatrical storytelling. Sometimes adapting existing source materials provides a clear road map and at other times it can be a hindrance. It all depends on the piece.

Q: Are any of the following works due for more performances? Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce's Fellow Travelers, Todd Almond's Kansas City Choir Boy, Gregory Spears and Royce Vavrek's O Columbia, Kevin Puts and Mark Campbell's The Manchurian Candidate, Douglas J. Cuomo and John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, Jimmy Lopez and Nilo Cruz's Bel Canto, and Theodore Morrison and John Cox's Oscar.

KN: Fellow Travelers will have numerous performances and it has been recorded for commercial CD release. Kansas City Choir Boy has already had four productions and Oscar has had two. I hope the others will have many more. Bel Canto was recently on PBS Great Performances. I love each of these pieces and hope to do them all as often as possible.

Q: What can you tell us about your production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?
The production The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs? will be the same in all venues after its premiere in Santa Fe this summer. As of this writing, it will also be seen in Seattle and San Francisco.

KN: Steve Jobs and Apple changed the way we think and interact with the world around us. In taking on the story of one the most iconic innovators of our time, my design team and I were inspired by Apple's revolutionary approach that combined a user-friendly interface with cutting edge technology. Never before in human history has one device contained so much information about us, yet we were never meant to look inside that device. How did the man who changed the way we see ourselves view the world? What inspired him and how did he see himself in relation to the changing world around him?

Mark Campbell's nonlinear libretto traverses time and space while Mason Bates' score encompasses electronics, acoustic guitar, Eastern-inspired tones and lush string orchestrations. Our production animates Mark and Mason's innovative storytelling approach through a visually minimal physical environment that can morph in an endless variety of ways through physical movement, video, and light, much like the seamless integration of Apple devices

Our brains are now so fully in tune with our technology that it's hard to separate ourselves from it, physically, psychologically and spiritually. Our main goal is to animate the sense of magic and wonder we feel when we look into the "black mirror" of our devices. As Laurene says to Steve in the opera, "Humans are messy, awkward and cluttered. Look at us closely, open our cases, you will only find chaos." As we bring the audience into the heart and mind of Steve Jobs, we are harnessing cutting edge technology and fusing it with traditional stagecraft in a way that will create a world that, hopefully, will push the limits of what is possible on the operatic stage.

Q: In addition to your work with new operas, you also direct traditional pieces. What can you tell us about your production of Norma?

KN: We have already performed Norma in San Francisco, Toronto, Barcelona and Chicago. Next year we will perform it in Houston. Bellini's Norma is a story about the rituals of sacrifice, both public and private. Those rituals inform the entire opera; from the Druid community's collective sacrifice during wartime to Norma's threatened sacrifice of her own children and, ultimately, her own life. While little is known about actual Druid religious rituals, mythology suggests that human and animal sacrifice were central to the Druid ethos.

In researching ancient Druid and Gaulish mythology, my design team and I were drawn to these images of sacrifice, such as the Ritual of Oak and Mistletoe involving the slaughter of two white bulls, as described by Pliny the Elder in the first century A.D. We were also inspired by images of "sacred forests" and legends that envisaged trees as the physical manifestation of the gods. As the opera illustrates, burning effigies seem to have been central to Druid rituals, often taking the form of a wooden or wicker man or other such sculptural representations of human beings or animals.

The foreboding door to the outside world, the totem bullheads on the wall, and Norma's children's miniature elements of war, all reflect this world of sacrifice and conflict. Our space is both a temple and a war factory as the Druids work at building a war machine to unleash upon the occupying Romans. In our production, the entire chorus is preparing the war effort. Their clothes, hair, and tattoos all augment the feeling of a unified community pursuing a common cause.

Although we have set the production in a mythic, Game of Thrones-inspired milieu, Norma feels very contemporary to me. Norma's children are already being indoctrinated into a world of war, with its requisite betrayals and sacrifices. Norma's moments with her children are deeply moving to me, especially in the hands of the gifted singing actress Sondra Radvanovsky. Her rumination about whether or not to kill her own children envisions both a Medea-like act of revenge and an act of protection from the violent world she knows awaits them, as in Toni Morrison's classic novel Beloved. In our production, Norma breaks the cycles of violence as she turns the war machine into an effigy and the instrument of her ultimate sacrifice.

Q: What is your concept of Faust?

KN: Faust is in Chicago and Portland and it's an exciting collaboration with the visual artist John Frame, that uses stop-motion animation and sculpture to bring the opera to life in an interdisciplinary way. I love pushing the boundaries of what is possible onstage.

Q: How much modern technology do you use in your work?

KN: I use a lot of modern technology in my work. Many of my current projects use video and projections, particularly The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which utilizes cutting-edge video technology to tell the story of Jobs' life. Our goal is to present a seamless, unified design that mirrors the integrated approach to technology and design used in Apple products.

Q: Is there an opera that you have not worked on but would love to stage?

KN: There are many. I am dying to direct Janacek's work. I am excited about an upcoming production of Puccini's Il Trittico. There are also many musicals that I can't wait to get my hands on but, again, my real passion is directing new work.

Q: What do you most like to do when you take time off?

KN: I love being outside in nature. Hiking, kayaking, exploring the outdoors are activities that RECHARGE me. My family lives in rural New Hampshire and that is my main refuge. In fact, I filmed two of my three short films there.

Q: How does you present outlook align with your past experiences?

KN: As I approach my fortieth birthday, it's interesting that I am hearing the eighties music I grew up with everywhere I go now. As a kid, I was obsessed with MTV and pop music, but I was also a full-time theatre nerd. One of the great joys of my life right now is that I am developing several projects with some of my favorite artists of all time. Everything comes full circle! For me, MTV, rock and roll, opera, and film are all coalescing.

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From This Author Maria Nockin