BWW Preview: Turn Off Your iPhone. STEVE JOBS Arrives at Santa Fe Opera on July 22
With Grammy-nominated American composer Mason Bates dipping his toe into full-length operatic waters for the first time--and star librettist Mark Campbell doing it for the umpteenth--the Guggenheim Museum's "Works & Process" series gave an extended peak into the development of their new opera, THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS, which premieres on July 22 at the Santa Fe Opera (SFO). Looking back at that evening in April, I recall how the extended musical excerpts gave the audience a good idea of the brilliance of Bates's score and the general excitement in store.
While the premiere of STEVE JOBS happens to coincide with 10th anniversary of the iPhone, said SFO's General Manager Charles MacKay in introducing the program, the opera isn't about technology but "relationships, human frailties and the power of the human spirit."
Here are some cries and whispers taken from the evening's proceedings, moderated by the production's director Kevin Newbury, to help illuminate the work behind the opera (Santa Fe's 15th world premiere), which will run in repertoire through August 25.
Writing about creative people
According to Bates, who lives in the Bay area--Silicon Valley, south of San Francisco, is home of Apple and other tech companies--the stories of creative people, including Offenbach's TALES OF HOFFMANN and Britten's DEATH IN VENICE, have made good operas. He came up with the idea of writing a work about Steve Jobs as "a new kind of creative person--a creative technologist," since it's a phenomenon of our times.
Said Bates, "Steve Jobs simplified and miniaturized our communication, but his life was so complicated: He had a daughter that he did not acknowledge for a while, he had cancer that he treated in unconventional ways, and so on--things you can't control or wish away with a button."
Bates found the kind of tension inherent in Jobs's life very operatic and felt that communication is a great theme for opera--and it didn't hurt that Jobs was "charismatic, creative, awesome, fun," while simultaneously "a real negative charge, a hard boss and a human." His wife Laurene is a key to the story, because she helped keep him grounded (or, at least, as much as he could be...).
Finding a collaborator
When Bates started to look around for a collaborator to do the libretto, composer/librettist Mark Adamo recommended Mark Campbell, perhaps best known for his libretto for the Pulitzer-Prize winning SILENT NIGHT, but a highly productive artist with many other operas to his credit as well. "Something I love about Mark's work," said Bates, "is that it is so diverse, incredibly economical and can do almost anything with time and place. He's got a very malleable craft and we wanted this opera to 'pixelate'--to shatter it into lots of different pieces, all patching into that theme of 'life simplified' vs. 'life out of control.' Mark was phenomenal in making that happen."
Humanizing Steve Jobs
Campbell says he accepted the project because he wanted to work with Bates. "I'd heard his music and it's brilliant," said Campbell, "and playful and exciting and perfect for the opera house. In Campbell's opinion, "It's what we need in opera now. He merges this brilliant electronic sound with the orchestra and that is something I haven't heard in opera."
The subject, on the other hand, was something else. "I was less enamored of writing about Steve Jobs because he's problematic," Campbell explained. "Everyone in this audience knows who he is or thinks they know who he is. They read the Walter Isaacson book--or pretended they read it." How was Campbell to approach a subject who's "in all of our psyches--certainly in all of our pockets and purses, whether we like it or not"?
It was tricky, he recalled, because we have to care about the main character, which, he believes, is the first goal of an opera. "Steve Jobs had many things in his life that I didn't like--he could be so horrible to people," Campbell opined. On the other hand, there were many things about him that he loved and once he was able to humanize him, "it was clear sailing."
Choosing the focus
Director Newbury piped in, "Mason and Mark are real artists of the theatre and they have written a piece that is a very heightened experience, one that reverses time and space. It jumps around between Steve's early days--we all feel like we know him and call him 'Steve'-- his product (iPhone) launch in 2007 up until his death in 2011."
Bates said, "I think it would have been boring to do a movie of the week version of the story and I was more interested in the heart and soul of the man; chronology doesn't always obey that. It's an opera and opera can do that really well because it's abstract and doesn't necessarily have the same rules of time that we might ascribe to a straight play." Added Campbell, because Jobs's life is familiar (or feels so), they had the opportunity to "surf in and out of the story. What's fun is when you juggle all these balls and they land at the same time. It's sort of what we go for at the end of this piece."
"I would say there was a balance of exploring the theme of how Steve Jobs arrived at humanizing a machine but then also stories and characters that appealed to me on some level that I also thought, forgive me, are also entertaining," said Campbell. "Our first job is to entertain."
In creating a flow for the libretto, Campbell did lots of research, focusing on Jobs's creativity and humanizing him. "I'd read an anecdote and say wow, I want to include this in the opera, or I don't want that in the opera," he explained. There are incidents where Jobs takes acid and hears music, or when he and Woz got the idea how to break a code to make international phone calls--and call the Vatican, with Woz pretending to be Henry Kissinger.
There's also a scene where he crashes a calligraphy class and starts learning that there's a circle that Buddhist monks paint called an enso , hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes--symbolizing absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and the void, to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create. It relates to the circular notion of this opera--and there's a payoff, said Campbell, because as we know calligraphy was important for him to learn, and he used it to help humanize computers by introducing typefaces to the screens that we were watching.
Bates added, "The thing about Mark's libretto is that, while it gives us sneak peaks into Steve's life, it all kind of relates to his evolution: to have him go from countercultural figure doing acid or hacking into the Vatican to creating the most valuable company in the world and what you need to do to do that--and what happens to a person when they're doing this is really interesting.
Setting the life of Steve Jobs to music
According to Bates, "Everyone knows about Wagner and leitmotifs associated with a certain character or theme. Here, I wanted to take this to an extreme--where everybody has their own sound world." For example, since Bates sees Jobs as having a kind of "busy inner soul," an acoustic guitar is used with him, which is also an instrument that he liked and, said the composer, goes well with the voice. Quicksilver electronic sounds are also associated with him, whereas his wife Laurene has more of an oceanic strings sound.
Kobun Chino Otogawa, Jobs's spiritual advisor during his whole adult life (who appears in the opera though he died before some of the action takes place, to help Jobs understand mortality), has these processed prayer bowls chimes and gongs and alto flute. Woz--Steve Wozniak, Jobs's business partner-- is a confident everyman, a jocular figure, and he has saxophone, jazzy world. Bates noted, "What I found interesting is when these people start interacting musically, their sounds can collide. As the opera progresses, for example, you can see how Laurene slows Steve's music down."
Where you finish...
Campbell recalled that while they had a few different options, their common ground was to focus on his creativity: The way he humanized the computer. Campbell recalled the way personal computers operated in the '80s--where you kept having to insert a disk to work on it--and an early quote from Jobs that said, "Computers are going to continue to happen; they're not going to leave; let's make it easier for people to use them." "The consequence of that," said Campbell, "is that everyone walks around looking at their little rectangles; You go on the NY subway and people are all glued to their phones. No one is looking around. One thing that Mason and I discovered in the telling of the story is that maybe that needs to change."
Newbury noted that never before in human history have we had "one thing in our pocket [our phones] that tells us more about ourselves than we have right now." THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS looks inside this man--his mind and heart, his head and influences--and how his work helped change the way we think.
The Guggenheim Museum's "Works & Process" preview of the Mason Bates-Mark Campbell THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS featured performances by Edward Parks (Steve Jobs), Sarah Coit (Laurene Powell Jobs), Garrett Sorenson (Steve Wozniak), Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogawa), and Jessica Jones (Chrisann Brennan) with guitarist James Moore and Robert Tweten, who heads Santa Fe's music staff, as conductor and accompanist. Last but not least, composer Bates provided additional guitar-work, as he will in Santa Fe.
Most of the singers will appear in the Santa Fe premiere; the role of Laurene Jobs will be sung by Sasha Cook.