A dazzling new opera at SFO explores the other side of Steve Jobs

United StatesUnited States Mason Bates, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Michael Christie (conductor). War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, 22.9.2023. (HS)

Bille Bruley (Steve Wozniak) and John Moore (Steve Jobs) © Cory Weaver/SFO

Libretto – Mark Campbell
Director – Kevin Newbury
Sets – Victoria (Vita) Tzykun
Costumes – Paul Carey
Lighting – Japhy Weiderman
Projection design – 59 Productions
Projection designer – Ben Pearcy
Sound – Rick Jacobsohn
Chorus director – John Keene

Steve Jobs – John Moore
Laurene Powell Jobs – Sasha Cooke
Kōbun Chino Otogawa – Wei Wu
Steve Wozniak – Bille Bruley
Chrisann Brennan – Olivia Smith
Paul Jobs – Joseph Lattanzi
Teacher – Gabrielle Beteag

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, an opera co-commissioned by San Francisco Opera eight years ago, finally arrived Friday evening. It had been scheduled for June 2020, but COVID-19 intervened. The wait was worth it.

As a good opera should, the story delves deeply into the emotional and spiritual life of the title character. It focuses on how the quixotic and conflicting persona of the Apple Computers founder hurt him and those around him, but also led to the first personal computer using a graphical interface and to the iPhone, which revolutionized the way that people communicate today.

Mason Bates, whose music freely embraces classical forms and electronic sounds, may have been the perfect choice to compose the music, weaving it all together with the sort of fluidity and simplicity that Jobs himself championed in the creations he fostered. Mark Campbell (a veteran opera librettist whose previous work includes Kevin Puts’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night) packs a lot into the one-hour 45-minute single act. Its eighteen scenes draw connections among incidents from various times in Jobs’s life, and not in chronological order.

The opera gets right to the point. A prologue introduces Steve in the garage of the Palo Alto home where he grew up, receiving a workbench and tools from his father, Paul, on his eighth birthday. The music feels relaxed and homey, until it speeds up and gets rhythmic in a quick transition to the first scene, the triumphant day in 2007 when Jobs introduced the first iPhone a few blocks from the opera house.

A doozy of a sequence establishes the key elements for this dazzling production, directed by Kevin Newbury. Six big panels move silently around the stage, framing the garage in the prologue and then rearranging to define the conference center for the introduction to the iPhone. Baritone John Moore delivers it with an uncanny semblance to Jobs’s own speech, surrounded by a crowd of both fans and skeptics. Energetic music builds to a rousing climax.

In the next scene we meet Laurene, his wife (mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, almost unrecognizable in a long blond wig but in glorious voice), whose whole-chorded music moves slower than his, her gravity and grace contrasting with Jobs’s acoustic guitar-centered rhythms as she reminds him that he needs to rest, not work himself to death.

Steve leaves to take a walk in the mountains, where he encounters the ghost of Kōbun, his Zen mentor, portrayed by Wei Wu. The music chimes with Tibetan prayer bowls and gongs, and Kōbun’s simple, often self-deprecating demeanor and rich, softly sonorous bass create another contrast.

John Moore (Steve Jobs), Wei Wu (Kōbun) and Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs)  © Cory Weaver/SFO

These three are the story’s tentpoles. If Cooke and Wu wield voices with richer character and more sheer beauty than Moore’s steady, reliable sound, they are, after all, Jobs’s most important emotional influences. The voices are amplified, though not intrusively, and they balance smoothly with Bates’s electronica and a full orchestra, through a sound system designed by Rick Jacobsohn.

The story always returns to 2007 after circling back to earlier times: a teenaged Jobs and his friend Steve Wozniak (Bille Bruley and his ripe tenor) putter in the garage to build innovative electronics, a precursor to their partnership at Apple; an LSD-infused afternoon with a girlfriend in an apple orchard leads to the conception of his first child, unwanted by him; a sweet scene portrays Steve and Laurene falling in love over Ansel Adams photos and LPs of Ella Fitzgerald in his unfurnished home.

There is a seamlessness to the segues and flashbacks that makes all this dramatically logical. Bates’s choice of instrumentation, geared to each major character, helps, as does the believable acting by the whole cast.

Through all this, the music stands out as appropriate for the moment, and it coordinates its sung melodies with the rhythms of American English. The orchestra comments and underlines without getting in the way. I understood every word.

One might have wished for more memorable melodies, but Bates fashions arias and ensembles into some impressive highlights, especially a beautifully crafted final scene at Jobs’s funeral, in which all the major characters – dead and alive – are together on stage for one last time. Cooke delivered Laurene’s summation of Steve’s many contradictions, his cruelty and genius, with gorgeous inflections to her distinctively pure sound.

Shakespeare (and probably before) took liberties with factual details in staged treatments of famous people in favor of getting to the essence of human connections and emotional conflicts. So did operas of Verdi which are dramatically if not historically accurate. In this one, it is mostly omissions. We never hear anything about the Apple II computer or any of the Macintosh desktops, nor do we get specifics about the pancreatic cancer that felled Jobs eight years after it was diagnosed. The C-word is never mentioned.

Instead, Bates and Campbell relentlessly focus on what made Jobs who he was. In a program note, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Donna Dubinsky gives that a thumbs-up. After noting that some colleagues from her Apple days object to various historical aspects in the opera, she says it still ‘captures well the paradox of Steve Jobs … a complex and compelling combination of genius and ruthlessness’.

The opera took a circuitous route to San Francisco. The other SF Opera, Santa Fe, got the world premiere in 2017, and won a Grammy for a live recording released in 2018. Seattle Opera and Indiana University got it next, and Austin, Kansas City, Atlanta, Calgary and Utah staged it before San Francisco.

Polished by all these previous performances, the local premiere felt thoroughly assured. Holdovers from the original Santa Fe production clearly have settled into their roles, most notably conductor Michael Christie, Cooke and Wu. Their work produced the most revelatory scenes, both dramatically and musically.

Harvey Steiman

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