Opera shows tech mogel in search of humanity

‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’ being staged in Santa Fe

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SANTA FE, N.M. — There is something about experiencing opera in an amphitheater perched atop a mesa in the high desert country of northern New Mexico, with red sunsets peeking through the open back wall of the stage, that can make true believers out of the most opera-resistant.

That much is as true today as it was 60 years ago, when a stubborn visionary named John Crosby founded the Santa Fe Opera. It seems appropriate that a new opera about a more recent stubborn visionary — microcomputer innovator and tech visionary Steve Jobs — should add another notch to the company’s impressive bedpost of world and American premieres (15 of the former, 43 of the latter).

“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” the first opera by former Chicago Symphony Orchestra resident composer Mason Bates, with text by the veteran librettist Mark Campbell, is receiving seven performances as part of a season consisting of two company premieres — Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” and Handel’s “Alcina” — and two works from the standard repertory, Donizetti’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” and Johann Strauss Jr.’s “Die Fledermaus.”

“A lean and clean machine” is how the operatic Steve Jobs talks up his latest computerized gizmo to an engineer at the unnamed corporation he heads in Silicon Valley, early in the 90-minute work. He could just as well have been describing the piece itself.

The action takes as its structural signposts key events in Jobs’ rise from hippie iconoclast to revolutionary electronics mogul, treating his rise and fall and rise as neither biopic nor hagiography but fact-based theater. Bates’ percolating music, Campbell’s minimalist text, Kevin Newbury’s fluid staging and high-tech design seal the operatic Jobs in a case as sleek and airtight as an iPhone. That’s both the work’s strength and its weakness.

A familiar story

Bates and Campbell assume we already know the biographical basics about the iconic wizard of Apple. Rather, their nonlinear narrative focuses on the demons that drive Jobs and make the iconic genius such a failure as a human being. Apple Inc. is never mentioned (neither the electronics giant nor the Jobs estate nor family authorized the opera), nor is the pancreatic cancer that killed the real-life Jobs in 2011, at 56.

Insensitive to everyone and everything but his work, this egocentric control freak bullies friends and co-workers and estranges lovers and family members.

“When will you let in the truth?” sings Jobs’ forgiving wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, (the mesmerizing mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke), pleading with her husband to reconnect with his flawed humanity and save their marriage.

Which brings us to the central problem.

The opera’s 20 scenes, some quite brief, jump around so much in time and place that it’s hard to trace a coherent dramatic arc that would make Jobs’ spiritual “rebirth” believable. Baritone Edward Parks, dressed in Jobs’ trademark black turtleneck, Levis and sneakers, is onstage the entire time and does what he can to make us sympathize with a basically unsympathetic character. But the charisma isn’t there, and, without that, the operatic Jobs is only a shadow of his real-life alter ego.

Bates’ music is some of his most inventive and alluring to date, smoothly interfacing with the pixelated dramaturgy as seamlessly paced by director Newbury.

The score’s pounding, popping, buzzing orchestral groove, overlaid with electronica at key moments, effectively represents the restless mind of Jobs, forever operating at warp speed.

Bates’ hard-driving rhythmic pulsations are set off by calmer, atmospheric stretches of music tailored to the central characters — twangy acoustic guitar riffs for Jobs, prayer bowls and gongs for Kobun, his Buddhist spiritual adviser, performed with quiet dignity and self-deprecating humor by bass Wei Mu.

The vocal writing — discreetly amplified — that sits atop this kaleidoscopic orchestral carpet is one-size-fits-all lyricism, singable but unmemorable.

Tenor Garrett Sorenson as Jobs’ corporate co-founder Steve “Woz” Wozniak pours out his rage over his former pal’s turning into “one of the people we hated” — another heartless corporate Goliath. Soprano Jessica E. Jones scales the coloratura heights in her sympathetic portrayal of Chrisann Brennan, the pregnant girlfriend whom Jobs cruelly abandons.

Conductor Michael Christie draws precise playing and firm rhythmic drive from the orchestra, modulating the intensity for the moodier confrontations. The sleek, high-tech production designs of Victoria “Vita” Tzykun (sets), Paul Carey (costumes) and Japhy Weideman (lighting), with projections by 59 Productions, deploy an ever-shifting array of modular screens (think giant, moving iPhones).

“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” is a co-commission with the Seattle and San Francisco operas, co-produced with those companies and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music. Those listeners who are unable to catch the work in Santa Fe or elsewhere should note that Pentatone plans to release a CD based on the live performances.