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Pushing the Boundaries with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

BY Don Fineberg


Pushing the Boundaries with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

In so many ways, Steve Jobs’s life was a mess.  He lived most of it as a demanding loner, with few friends and even fewer trusted intimates. Yet, he evolved.  At the end, before he succumbed to his pancreatic cancer, he reconciled with his daughter and bonded with his wife.  Few know this part of his story. While his “evolution” proceeded at a glacial pace, his technical revolution rapidly permeated the world’s cultures during his short lifetime. This part of his story affects everyone. How old was he when he died? Check your iPhone. Just kidding, he was 56. To present the life of Steve Jobs, you need to cover both parts of the story. Thus we get to the novel formatting of the first words of the opera’s title: “The (R)evolution …”.

Here’s the question: how do you compress all of this two-sided “(R)evolutionary” story into a 90-minute opera? First and foremost, the opera needs to innovate as powerfully as Jobs himself! Santa Fe Opera takes on a duel-edged, challenge. On the one hand, the opera consolidates the biography of a well-known cultural icon into a single performance. On the other hand, the opera pushes the boundaries of its art form, consistent with the contemporary, technological focus of its subject.

Let’s now consider how this truly amazing effort coalesces into this operatic gem. Paradoxically, to tell the story of this isolative individual, it takes incredible teamwork, beyond the usual collaborative efforts to create an opera. If the opera were a living being, music would be its heart. While other aspects of opera comprise the body’s vital organs, music pumps its lifeblood throughout.

With most opera produced today, the composers and librettists are long dead. I can assure you that Mason Bates and Mark Campbell are very much alive.  Further, their work takes shape with the Kevin Newbury’s directorial innovation woven into their artistic choices.  The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs takes the level of collaboration one step higher, with every professional depending on one another for inspiration and fine-tuning.  They combine innovative music, a perceptive libretto, cutting edge projective technology and crisp stage direction to produce an opera inspired by the life of this technological revolutionary.

Mason Bates composed The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. The Bates-Jobs match was made in Opera Heaven. Bates’s orchestral music incorporates electronic and natural sound elements. For those of you wary of electronic music, you are not alone. Many classical musicians were wary of electronic compositions that would place traditional instruments in a back-up role. Bates’s music, by contrast, creates a new form of symphonic integration. He wins over whole orchestras and he will win you over as well.

Mason Bates has mastered this type of integration: His piece, Liquid Interface, opens with the actual glacial sounds; The composition, B Side, uses transmissions from a NASA space walk; And, Alternative Energy uses recordings from the particle accelerator of the Fermi Lab. Bates affirms, “you can tell stories in new ways when you have new sounds.” To really fill the “imaginative space,” he continues, “it takes the orchestra.” By elevating this composition technique to opera, his score amplifies the impact of the voices of the singers in conjunction with the music.

The score powerfully and effectively expresses the life of Steve Jobs, with certain sounds incorporated into the music highlighting this impact. For example, in the garage scene inventing Apple computers, the music samples the sounds made by actual Apple gear. The scenes with Steve Jobs’s spiritual advisor, Kōbun, incorporate authentic Zen temple bells. These samples blend into complete orchestration to intensify rather than compete with the impact of the opera’s musicality.

Mason Bates feels strongly that “the music needs to rise to the level of the story it is telling.”  The story has a pace. The music reflects this rhythm. Sometimes, it has what Bates calls “a pixilated quality” – like computers themselves, run by the numbers. It offers fast information. This quality alternates with more reflective passages that give us time to experience our emotions. We get deeper into the developing narrative. Music “pushes the envelope” not for novelty’s sake, but because the story of Steve Jobs demands innovation in the musical representation of his visionary life.  In addressing this demand, Bates keeps us surprised and engaged.

Opera is a powerful multi-faceted artistic expression of both complexity and clarification of our lives. Bates believes this opera expresses this dual focus. The beauty and structure of the music can effectively tell the story of a man who invented technology to simplify our lives while simultaneously making a mess of his own. Like one of Apple’s computers, the elegantly designed “shell” covers a very complex and hard to understand interior. Jobs aimed to package what Bates calls “the messiness of human relationships in the context of a minimalist design.” With the help of Laurene (his wife) and Kōbun (his spiritual advisor), Steve Jobs discovers a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.  With its motifs, the music surveys this difficult to describe territory.

Bates composes these motifs in the spirit of the opera’s characters. As he explains it, the characters “inhabit their own music.” Steve Jobs has a pressure theme reflecting his driven temperament, Laurene has more connecting, oceanic themes, “Woz” his co-inventor carries a jazzy motif befitting his originality and Kōbun has music befitting a Zen master. These motifs become interwoven when the characters interact. For example, when Woz’s “jazz” meets Laurene’s “flow,” their musical themes interact. Or, in another instance – the climax of the opera – Laurene gets Steve to acknowledge his human vulnerability, and he truly evolves, the frenetic pace of Jobs’s theme on an acoustic guitar begins to slow to be in sync with Laurene’s steadying influence. In the midst of this music’s advanced technology with electronic elements, as well as its sophisticated intermingling of themes, the score engages us. (Director Kevin Newbury commented that even when he is not working on the opera, he sometimes just listens to it for fun, for pure enjoyment.) Clearly, this music flows in the heart of the opera.

Even so, Mason Bates readily acknowledges the other members of the creative team: He credits Michael Christie, the conductor for invaluable help as a “critical collaborator” in the pacing of the piece; He credits Kevin Newbury for constant stream of interactive feedback of how the piece might get staged in relation to the music; He includes inspiration from the scenic designer with its sophisticated set of movable, illuminated panels doubling as projection screens; And, he readily cites the frequent back and forth with librettist Mark Campbell for successfully integrating their words and music – the essence of opera.

For his own part, Mark Campbell, the librettist, has taken on a daunting task. All libretti need to make choices about inclusion and exclusion. Unlike a narrative based on a work of fiction, or myth, Steve Jobs lived a truly large, contemporary life thoroughly described in a biography, movies and documentaries. The more one learns about Steve Jobs, the more one can appreciate how much of it has actually been included in the opera. For example, the mere mention of a name, like Bob Dylan, includes an important reference to Jobs as well as a familiar reference for the audience. In another example, while under the influence of LSD, Steve hallucinates Bach after Chrisann (former girlfriend) summarizes an entire phase of his life: a jobless dropout, living at home, a moody, budding Buddhist, with a brain that is always clicking away. Campbell succeeded at a monumental challenge by focusing the story on the life arc of the protagonist, with his ability to represent both his impact on our society as well as his personal transformation.

Campbell concurs with Bates that Jobs’s story can be seen as a classic tale of “a great man facing many demons” as well as a new story of technical, cultural and personal transformation. After all, the man in question, Steve Jobs, had the imagination to significantly change our culture’s way of life.  Campbell clearly thrives in the collaborative effort to tell the story.  On one side of the joint effort, Mason Bates admired the innovative way in which Campbell told the story, and he wanted the music to match the level of creativity. On the other side, Campbell admired “the way Mason captures that in his music,” and he wanted the libretto to be as engaging. Together they draw a compelling portrait of the life of Steve Jobs in this period of the history of Silicon Valley.

So, how does Campbell create a libretto with such an innovative narrative? In brief, he does it with a new structure.  Instead of the traditional acts and scenes in linear time, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs unfolds in a series of scenes, that move back and forth through time and ultimately return – in a complete revolution – to their starting place. Within these scenes, the opera develops its themes: Steve Jobs’s impact on technology, his driven nature, his spiritual growth, his relational evolution and ultimately his own mortality.

As if this were not a sufficient challenge, the opera accomplishes all of this in only 90 minutes without Steve Jobs leaving the stage! The scenes change around him.  The set contains multiple, large panels lit on one side. They suggest of iPhone illumination. The panels also serve as projecting screens. In essence they reflect outside light and they glow with inside light.  The powerful outside projection and the glow from inside light parallels the dual “(R)evolution” of the opera itself.  Furthermore, the panels move. Their placements appear as effortless as the push of a button on an Apple device. The state-of-the-art camera system allows the projectors to track the panel movement, without changing the projected images.  This truly amazing set needs to be seen in action. Of course, this all synchronizes with the music and its unfolding narrative.

Kevin Newbury recognized early on in the project that the story of Steve Jobs had become inseparable from the technology he invented, manufactured and promoted, and our culture adopted. As first articulated by Marshall McLuhan, Newbury understands “technology as a direct extension of us.” Along with the music and the libretto, the staging of the opera needs to reflect the innovative nature of Steve Jobs’s life.

Newbury speaks enthusiastically about the collaborative development of the opera with the music, libretto, sets, lighting and staging. The many months of back and forth – inspiration, suggestion, creation and refinement – generates an opera like no other: an artistic and technological achievement up to the elusively high standards demanded by Steve Jobs himself.

We in the audience can use this opera’s themes as a backdrop for our own experience. In our lives, we sense the growing impact of technology or the humanizing effect of love. The opera – in scenes relating to innovation, product launches, and material success – succinctly portray the skyrocketing career of Steve Jobs. We are in awe.

But how did he become the person who he was? It is challenging to “evolve” into the people we become and continue to become throughout our lives. Paradoxically, the life of this extraordinary individual informs the common ground we all share. The “opera” Steve Jobs reveals his life through a handful of episodes, made memorable by the emotions they evoke in us.

Helped by the pace of the music and the perceptive narrative, the opera focuses us on our thoughtful sense of our own identities. The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs drawn from the wellspring of creative collaboration inspires us to experience his transformation and to make some part of it our own.

As for that new ringtone? You turned it off before the opera. Consider leaving it that way for a while longer. As the opera invites us: Take a moment; Take a breath; and, inhale the experience. Before you turn your device back on, heed the advice of Steve Jobs: Be confident you can play your “device” and not let your “device” play you.