Monday, August 28, 2017

Review: The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs

By Matthew Dirst

Is there drama in bytes? Or poetry in the smart phone? Only a Luddite would reject out of hand such tantalizing prospects for Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 premiere, a co-production with San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera about the computer entrepreneur Steve Jobs, co-founder and CEO of Apple Inc. On a beautiful summer evening at one of the world’s great outdoor stages, this new work by librettist Mark Campbell and composer Mason Bates held out the possibility of a useful update to opera’s venerable operating system, one inspired by our trusty devices. Notwithstanding the suggestive title, (R)Evolution steers mostly clear of Steve Jobs’ creative evolution and his transformative role in the digital revolution. Instead, it’s a series of short scenes that focus on his relational and spiritual issues. Part of clutch of contemporary operas about important events and people (from Satyagraha through Dr. Atomic), (R)Evolution is an opera about a brilliant, if testy, computer nerd. Unlike the elegant iPhone, however, Campbell and Bates’ opera makes little effort to infuse technology with artistry; instead, it’s an operatic bio of a socially awkward guy who becomes an arrogant corporate chief.

Edward Parks as Steve Jobs.  Image by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.
One wonders whether the co-commissioning entities, both in cities where the tech industry is especially powerful, had any qualms with the eventual direction of this opera’s story. Campbell’s recent collaboration with Kimberly Reed and Laura Kaminsky on Some Light Emerges, a Houston Grand Opera commission, was a beautifully nuanced meditation on that city’s Rothko Chapel and its visionary philanthropist Dominique de Menil. His libretto for (R)Evolution, while understandably less flattering, glides over Jobs’ achievements to spotlight instead his flirtation with Zen Buddhism and many character flaws. Like a modern novel or film, the opera travels back and forth in time, providing occasional motivations or connections: various scenes show him treating his girlfriend and wife badly, disavowing his own child, and behaving in a ham-handed way with colleagues. As “Steve Jobs: 1955-2011” appeared as a projection in the last scene, his wife Laurene sang directly to the audience, admonishing us to ignore the devices in our pockets for moment so that we could ponder the work’s message. I obeyed but started plotting my way to the car instead. And yet, the final notes on August 4 brought cheers from all corners of the house. I was clearly one of the few who left unsatisfied over the lack of a dramatically satisfying story.

At the very least, Kevin Newbury’s sleek production has generated considerable enthusiasm and interest, and that’s great news for the operatic community. (Santa Fe Opera has added an additional performance of the work.) Its lack of depth, humor, and meaning compares poorly, however, with more successful contemporary musical works about influential creators or world leaders: there’s none of the profound questioning of Nixon in China and little of the historical fantasy or life lessons of Sunday in the Park with George. (R)Evolution barely scratches the surface of its subject’s unique insights into technology and design, which forever changed the ways we work, play, and interact with each other. The tech wizardry Steve Jobs instigated is largely relegated to the rotating scenery, where projections of copyright-cleansed digital information (by 59 Productions) careen and buzz to great effect, alongside a well-rehearsed chorus of kinetic techies.

Vocally, the evening had many fine moments, thanks to an excellent cast that tried hard to transcend a hackneyed storyline. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (as Laurene) and tenor Garrett Sorenson (as Steve Wozniak, his long-suffering business partner) made the strongest impressions, in crucial scenes that offered glimpses of humanity and raw emotion as they tangled separately with the arrogant Jobs. Solid contributions from soprano Jessica Jones (as Chrisann, his first girlfriend) and bass Wei Wu especially (as the ghost of Kobun Chino Otagawa, Jobs’ spiritual advisor) enlivened several shorter scenes. Baritone Edward Parks, who sang the title role quite capably, inhabits Jobs visually but never ignites dramatically, perhaps because the libretto leaves him little room in which to maneuver. Seemingly immune to Laurene’s earnest encouragement and Otagawa’s oracular prayers, Jobs the operatic character remains to the end a precocious savant with few social skills.

Mason Bates’ music, by turns sensuous and driving, matches the quick pace of Campbell’s libretto and finds a champion in conductor Michael Christie, who provided a sure hand in the pit. With nineteen short scenes to set, Bates opted for maximum variety over consistency of expression. His scoring is happily eclectic, with minimalist orchestral figuration mixing with incisive guitar licks and various electronic twangs. His vocal writing aims squarely toward the middle, somewhere between the lyric and the jazzy, and with the constantly shifting scenes there’s not much opportunity for character development. Only once or twice do we get some inkling of what Bates might do with stronger material: the big confrontation scene between Jobs and Woz, for example, veers towards Italianate high drama but with a funky rhythmic edge. The seamlessness with which Bates mixes textures and styles is indeed impressive, as other reviewers have noted. Though Bates avoids overt musical allusions, Campbell’s libretto invites such things at least a few times, with Jobs invoking Bach as a musical ideal while high on acid in an apple orchard and again in the garage of his family home. (R)Evolution might usefully have indulged its namesake’s extraordinary prescience a bit more. Steve Jobs’ lasting contribution to society, after all, is his creativity—not his trail of failed relationships.

Matthew Dirst is Professor of Music at the Moores School of Music, University of Houston, and Artistic Director of Ars Lyrica Houston, with which he has made a number of acclaimed recordings, including the world première recording of J. A. Hasse’s Marc Antonio e Cleopatra, a Grammy nominee for Best Opera 2011. A prize-winning organist and harpsichordist, his publications include Engaging Bach: The Keyboard Legacy from Marpurg to Mendelssohn (Cambridge University Press, 2012), and more recently, he edited Bach and the Organ (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

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