“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs”: A new opera tapped for greatness?
L to R, Garrett Sorenson as Steve Wozniak, the Santa Fe Opera chorus, Edward Parks as Steve Jobs | Ken Howard

SANTA FE, N.M.—I had been prepared to begin reviewing this new opera saying, “I’m writing this on my iPad….” But a technical glitch yet to be resolved intervened in Santa Fe, and I was unable to access Apple’s Pages program—the best-laid plans and all that.

Somehow it fit the theme of the opera, though. Steve Jobs is lionized by some as not only a technological mastermind whose contributions we can hardly conceive of living without, but as an esthetic genius as well. He is meanwhile demonized by many others as an exploitative über-capitalist whose factories in China destroy the lives of thousands of low-wage workers. Now there is talk about a new iPhone manufacturing plant in Wisconsin, conveniently enough in Rep. Paul Ryan’s district, proving that Republicans can bring “Jobs” back to the American heartland.

Jobs will undoubtedly long remain a figure much studied and speculated about, divisive and complicated, heroic and pathetic. But that’s what the classic dramatic hero is: A noble character renowned for his or her strengths, and often tragically, fatally flawed.

Many other historical personalities have, of course, gone operatic: To name but a few, Mary Queen of Scots, Elizabeth I, Einstein, Columbus, Vasco da Gama, Nixon-Mao-Kissinger-Chou En Lai (all in Nixon in China), Boris Godunov, Frida Kahlo, Gandhi, Walt Disney, Susan B. Anthony, Gertrude Stein, Julius Caesar, Montezuma, Sacco and Vanzetti, and many more. Donald Trump, I believe, would not make for a noteworthy operatic role: He is simply not great or complex in sufficiently interesting ways to command the audience’s empathic engagement. He is not a man who ever faced wrenching moral crisis and suffered.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (seen July 26 in the Santa Fe Opera world premiere production) is set in a taut, fast-paced 90 minutes. In 18 nonlinear scenes, RSJ touches on critical moments and influences in his life as he interacts with various significant individuals who shaped him: his father, who crafted a work table in the garage for Steve’s 10th birthday on which he could tinker, an early girlfriend he acid-tripped with and impregnated, his lifelong Buddhist mentor, his first business partner and fellow visionary Steve Wozniak, Laurene Powell Jobs, the wife who showed him how to be more human, and numerous Apple associates (the name of his company is not mentioned as such) who facilitated his career.

Santa Fe joined with the Seattle and San Francisco opera companies to co-commission RSJ from 40-year-old composer Mason Bates. In this first opera he shows an ear for an accessible, contemporary sound. In fact, he is in the pit tinkering with his MacBook, adding “electronica,” synthesized sound effects to his orchestra, which include Tibetan prayer bowls, whooshes and plenty of taps. One lovely effect is the sound of an apple orchard coming to orchestrated life under the influence of LSD—a psychedelic circuitboard. “I’ve always felt,” the composer says of the history of orchestral music, “both in my symphonic pieces and now in opera, that we should look at these forms as not fully developed, but continuing to evolve.”

The librettist is Mark Campbell, two of whose other works we’ve recently reviewed, Silent Night and As One. Campbell found Jobs “a sympathetic man”: “He could be a bastard, he was a perfectionist, but he wasn’t only that.” His intelligent, probing libretto reflects more influence from the Broadway stage—Stephen Sondheim in particular—than from the traditional operatic repertoire. And why not? Many American composers are producing operas designed to be well received, “operas that appeal to modern audiences, and I see nothing wrong with that. To me, that is the art. Opera is a populist art for me.”

RSJ features a wondrously conceived scenic design by Victoria “Vita” Tzykun that reflects how sleek corporate culture has redefined our esthetic vision. The high-tech production, directed by Kevin Newbury, comprises thousands of moving parts—people, sets, lighting by Japhy Weideman, projections by Benjamin Pearcy—to tantalize the eye. At several points I thought to myself, With the tremendous breadth of thematic material we see on Broadway today, wouldn’t this work as a commercial property? Need it stay sequestered in the rarefied opera house? The audience is ready-made, and there’s nothing especially forbidding about the music to ward them off. Even in Santa Fe, the six scheduled performances reportedly sold out, and a seventh has been added.

Some professional critics have voiced intense, even hostile skepticism toward the work, perhaps confounded by the proposition that a popular success could actually be honest music, a story well told, and worthy of the august venues of America’s opera houses.

In one affecting touch, the Buddhist monk Kobun Chino Otogawa (bass Wei Wu), whose role it is to address Jobs’ ego with delicately deflating humor, reflects on beauty at the end of life and the waning of the day. It seems that Campbell purposefully placed that scene early in the script so that the open-air Santa Fe theatre would provide its own celestial backdrop at just about 8:30 pm.

Jobs’ wife, Laurene Powell Jobs (mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke), also plays a humanizing role in his life. If he made intolerable demands on others, he was no kinder to himself, ignoring a serious cancer that turned out to be fatal, and adopting useless and time-wasting “minimalist” self-medication. But we are led to believe that he “evolved” (per the title) into a better man, a familiar trope in the operatic literature—redeemed by the love of a good woman.

From slingshot to sellout

The opera is essentially a spiritual odyssey toward enlightened acceptance, which may appear to smooth off Jobs’ jagged edges. If Jobs was obsessed with clean, simple, minimalist design on the outside, it was to hide all the complex technology packed inside. The libretto draws the appropriate parallel, to the magisterially efficient, tyrannical corporate tycoon who dresses in casual, friendly turtle neck and jeans, yet suppresses the unkempt, unresolved issues roiling away in his real-life blood and bones.

Who can deny that Jobs democratized the computer, making the hand-held iPhone almost literally an anatomical adaptation to 20th-century homo sapiens?

The critical role of Steve Wozniak (Woz, his friend and business partner) is performed by heroic tenor Garrett Sorenson. We first see Woz and Jobs (baritone Edward Parks) outsmarting Ma Bell by devising the tones that will fool her system and allow people to make free long-distance calls.

Steve: That’s one for the common people

Woz: That’s one for Abbie Hoffman

Steve/Woz: That’s one for Cesar Chavez.
That’s one—that’s one—for the trouble-makers,
Rebels, freaks and sinners
Who keep this planet spinning.

Woz: For Bob Dylan

Steve: Dylan Thomas

Woz: Bob and Thomas…
Rebels, freaks, reformers,
Who keep this planet spinning.

Steve/Woz: Only goes to show…

Steve/Woz: All you ever need…

Steve: To take down the corporate Goliaths…

Woz: To take down the Wall Street behemoths…

Steve/Woz: Is a decent slingshot.

In the most apocalyptic phase of Jobs’ thinking, he imagines the world at your fingertips, an Edenic garden of instant gratification:

Get the news. Tap,
Set a date. Tap,
Book a flight. Tap,
Stay in touch. Tap,
Stay in shape. Tap,
Talk to friends. Tap,
Stalk celebs. Tap,
Map a route.

Your cute new puppy,
In your cute new car…
Being driven by the Pope….

It’s all you need, In one hand,
In your pocket, Everything.
All you need, To control
All of those messy moments In your life.

All of those
Chaotic moments, Control,
You need it.
You must have it now.

When Jobs reaches the apotheosis of his fame and power, his friends and intimates are alarmed by the changes that have overcome him. In a scene that recalls a similar confrontation in the Philip Glass opera about Walt Disney between the cartoon-meister and one of his long-time associates who tried to form a union there, Woz declaims:

Your company?
Your machine?
You’ve become one of the people we hated: A Goliath…
A Goliath.
Whatever you had before,
Whatever you were before,
All gone.
The dreams,
The garage,
Your father’s garage,
Our machine,
Our beautiful machine,
Something we play,
That doesn’t play us.
But now,
You need to control everything.
Decide everything,
And you won’t give up,
Not for a single second,
Until you’ve run us into the ground.
You’ve become one of the bastards we hated: An egomaniacal,
You’re not who you were,
This company is not what it was,
And I want no part of it.
I quit.

When the funeral concludes, Laurene sums up with a blessing laced with a belated transcendental kindness and not a little irony:

And after this is over,
The very second this is over,
For better or worse,
Everyone will reach,
Reach in their pockets,
Or purses,
And—guess what?—
Look at their phones,
Their “one device.”
I’m not sure Version 2.0 of Steve
Would want that.
Version 2.0 would say:
“Look up, look out, look around. Look at the stars,
Look at the sky,
Take in the light,
Take another sip,
Take another bite,
Steal another kiss,
Dance another dance,
Glance at the smile
Of the person right there next to you.”
Look up, look out, look around.
Be here now.
Be here now.
And then he’d say:
“Please buy them,
But don’t spend your life on them.”

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is a most promising start if Mason Bates wants to continue on the operatic path. It’s hard to predict the future of a new work, but I will say this: Critics be damned, audiences will pack the house for this adventuresome exploration into one of the most fundamentally transformative minds of our time.

Leading this production are conductors Michael Christie (though Aug. 15) and Robert Tweten (Aug. 22 and 25). A video on the making of the opera can be seen here. A professional recording of the opera is being made with the Santa Fe cast and orchestra.

Remaining performances are August 10, 15, 22 and 25. Santa Fe Opera is seven miles north of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285. Visit www.santafeopera.org or call (505) 986-5900 or (800) 280-4654 for information and tickets.


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.