Too Much Tchaikovsky

Steve Jobs, the Opera. Really.

Mason Bates wrote the music, Mark Campbell the libretto. They took their work seriously. The Santa Fe Opera offered the world premiere last summer, and Pentatone (PTC 5186 690) was there to record it. Judging from what I heard on the recording, the audience had a good time. You might too.

Steve Jobs was one of those people who actually did change our lives forever, way back in the 20th century. He’s as good a candidate for operatic portrayal as any of Handel’s historical protagonists, e.g., Caesar, Saul, Xerxes. (What, you’ve never seen Serse?) The thing about characters like that is, they’re “real,” but you can have fun with them because they’re so removed from modern life. Neither Handel nor his audiences gave a fig about the historical accuracy of an operatic Giulio Cesare. (Click here to see what Handel had his Giulio getting up to.)

Jobs (1955–2011) may not be ready for the Full Historical, though. We can’t assemble the requisite mythology/hagiography in so short a time. Or can we? Two serious biographies and two major biopics have already begun the job. Now an opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, brings in another point of view—sort of. As librettist Campbell put it,

No story . . . could capture all aspects of the Steve Jobs people think they know; nothing I write would be captious or laudatory enough. So I simply focused on writing the story that Mason and I wanted to tell—and the one that would sing.

Fair enough. Bates and Campbell are working at the top of their respective games, and the results are certifiably enjoyable. My joy was not complete, but we’ll get to that after the good parts.

First, the music: tonal, very accessible, throbbing with energy, delivered with feeling. It never lets up. Beatmaster Bates (club name “DJ Masonic”) has hit a triple his very first time at bat (operatically, that is). Here’s an excerpt from “One Device,” the big ensemble from Scene 1, “2007 Product Launch, San Francisco.” (Click here to get a PDF file of the libretto; scroll down to p. 36 for the text of this clip. You may want to keep the window open.)

Bates is acutely aware of what Jobs wrought:

When I held up one of the elegant black boxes containing the [Pentatone] CDs and libretto booklets, stylishly contained in a minimalist design worthy of Apple, my son asked, “Is that a new phone?” Good guess. . . . The opera is, in fact, a kind of giant smart phone, exploring the music of communication. The piece examines a fundamental tension in our lives today: how do we simplify human communication on such beautifully minimalist devices—when humans are so complicated?

There are few arias as such, no catchy tunes. The show jumps backward and forward through time, establishing connections between characters’ dreams, fears, failures, and triumphs, while Bates and Campbell guide us toward some surefire climaxes. Here’s one, an ode to the idea of the iPhone (which “doesn’t play us, but [is] something we play”), delivered by baritone Edward Parks as the 1976 Steve Jobs.

(Scroll down to p. 54 in the libretto for the text of this aria.)

Care was taken to juxtapose moments that subtly suggest connection: one can’t help being struck, for instance, by the way Jobs insists on a sleek, impregnable case for the new Mac (“We have to cover it up. . . . No clutter. No wires.”) mere seconds in the opera after cruelly shutting out someone from his life. (Okay, maybe that’s not too subtle.) Although it robs us of deeper insights into some characters, the temporal-dislocation device largely works; we know it from A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. The ghostly Kōbun Chino Otogawa, Steve’s Buddhist mentor, materializes to guide a desperately ill Jobs as he revisits scenes from his past. Kōbun’s tart, earthy commentary, expertly handled by baritone Wei Wu, provides a welcome contrast to the more cliché-prone characters. At one point Kōbun gently pushes 1975 Steve to leave the Los Altos Zen Center and begin practicing mindfulness in the real world (see p. 49 of the libretto):

I wish the other people in Jobs’ operatic life had received this sort of individualistic treatment. Wozniak (excellent tenor Garrett Sorenson) comes closest; he and 1973 Steve get to sing an infectious “Officer Krupke”-like number as they try out a Little Blue Box phone hack. Their raw adolescent glee leaves an indelible impression. Later, Woz gets a big solo song, a lament for the end of his friendship with Jobs. No female characters get an equal opportunity, although both Jessica E. Jones (Chrisann) and Sasha Cooke (Laurene) make the most of the conventional roles—spurned lover, dutiful wife—they are asked to animate.

I suppose this brings me to the Incomplete Joy parts, which thankfully aren’t very long. Part One: Bates’ first opera is a perfect machine; it runs like a dream, carefully maintaining momentum, color, and general interest from first to last note. But why couldn’t there have been a musical surprise or two in there? I think it’s actually harder to create psychological alienation—a big factor in this story—when you so carefully skate around anything that might musically challenge the audience.

Part Two: the production credits include not one but two individuals for Sound Design, plus an additional shout-out to Skywalker Sound’s Gary Rydstrom for “assistance with the electronic sounds,” i.e., synths and such. I get it. Without amplification, you can’t do this production, with its orchestra plus various tone generators and modifiers, outdoors (i.e., at the Santa Fe Opera). But that kills the microdynamics; it also tends to flatten macrodynamic range, making it harder for singers to do anything but bellow. (It would’ve been nice, in 2018, to hear a non-“operatic” vocal once or twice.) I understand the punishing economics that prevent Pentatone or any other label from doing a studio recording. But unless something like that happens—until engineers get to exercise greater control over the soundscape—we’ll never get to hear the full range of dynamics, tone color, and vocal characterization, i.e., music, that lies buried in this opera.

Part Three: I wonder whether Indiana U., San Francisco, or Seattle might still scrounge up the money for a Blu-ray video? Because apparently the innovative sets and lighting for this show are really smashing. It’s an opera, folks.

Speaking of which, here’s a complementary postlude for this week’s column. Recently I sampled another new “opera” recording, a charming 1718 one-acter. We know it as Acis and Galatea (HWV 49a), not to be confused with this composer’s earlier Italian treatment of the story from the Metamorphoses of Ovid. Handel wrote this version for the tiny band that James Brydges, Earl of Carnarvon, maintained at his palatial country estate; its English libretto was fashioned by the likes of John Gay and Alexander Pope. I know the music largely because, like Brahms’s Liebeslieder Wälzer, it was the sort of thing you could organize on a weekend with similarly inclined (singing) friends. Here’s the opening chorus:

So, nothing too serious. The future composer of Messiah tossed it off as a favor to a well-connected patron. Does it have anything in common with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs? Well, both works involve disruption of a previously stable environment. (Which pretty much describes 99% of all drama, ever.) Sea nymph Galatea is blissfully in love with shepherd Acis, and he with her:

Alas, their happiness is upended by the monster Polyphemus (“the same Cyclops . . . outwitted by Homer’s Odysseus,” David Vickers’ notes remind us), himself enamored of Galatea

and monstrously jealous of Acis. After a disastrous attempt at courtship, he hurls a fatal boulder at his rival; general mourning ensues. In a reconciling gesture, the gods turn Acis into a bubbling spring, source of the River Aci.

Handel used the old story to hang out as many stylish airs, duets, and choruses as he could manage, which was exactly what his noble audience expected. The results are delightful, although I found myself occasionally skipping ahead. (Maybe we cut a few numbers back in the day; I don’t remember Handel’s part of the party lasting so long!)

Will you enjoy this new recording from Christian Curnyn and the Early Opera Company (Chandos Chaconne CHSA 0404[2])? Depends on your tastes. It brought back fond memories for me, and the performances are top-flight (soprano Lucy Crowe, tenor Allan Clayton, bass Neal Davies).

And that’s it until next time, when we may consider Bernstein’s A Quiet Place, or Dvořák’s complete chamber music, or something else entirely (always my personal favorite).