What: The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs. Fully staged performance of the opera by Mason Bates with libretto by Mark Campbell.
Where Utah Opera, Janet Quinney Lawson Capitol Theatre
With John Moore, baritone (Steve Jobs); Sarah Coit, mezzo-soprano (Laurene Powell Jobs); Wei Wu, basso (Kobun); Robert Tweten (conductor)
When May 6, 8, 10, 12, 14.
Tickets and information utahopera.org
Computing machines can be traced back centuries, to the invention of the abacus and perhaps earlier; Alan Turing, whose “Turing Test” remains a standard of reference for defining artificial intelligence, developed his “Enigma Machine” during World War II. The classic Hollywood comedy Desk Set, written by Phoebe and Henry Ephron based on William Marchant’s 1955 play, shows that corporate mainframe computers with blinking lights and stacks of punch-cards were already a trope of popular culture. But the essential reality of the digital age — the fact that all information can be expressed as a series of ones and zeroes to be stored and processed as a series of electronic switches — hadn’t hit home yet. I like to date it to the advent of “New Math” as expressed in Tom Lehrer’s 1965 lyric, which explained it all to parents. Here’s the verse:
Hooray for New Math
It won’t do you a bit of good to review math
It’s so simple
So very simple
That only a child can do it.
New Math caused consternation among parents who thought multiplication tables and long division were eternal verities. It seemed to expose our familiar system of counting and computing as arbitrary and primitive, based on ten fingers and toes. Lehrer made brilliant satire out of showing us how to do it in base eight or seven or six, while early computer programmers were doing it — painstakingly — in base two. His lyric was not only brilliant (as always), but also prescient, suggesting that if you really want to understand this stuff, age is a problem. Things we think of as precursors to wisdom — experience, prior knowledge — can get in the way. OK, boomer.
Mason Bates was in his thirties (b. 1977) when he accepted the commission for the opera that became The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs, which premiered at the Santa Fe Opera In 2017. His librettist, Mark Campbell, is from a different generation, and is credited with forty opera librettos, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night; but many of Bates’ bios are still sprinkled with “first” and “youngest” designations. His music usually demonstrates a cognizance of tradition while pushing beyond boundaries, combining orchestral instruments with electronics of various kinds. The sound is youthful, fresh and accessible. His website notes that the intersection between music and technology is a central node of his work — not only for the orchestra and the operatic stage, but also as a composer, DJ and curator. During his term as the first composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Bates presented a diverse array of artists through his KC Jukebox using immersive production and stagecraft. His compositions have been widely programmed by major orchestras in the U.S. and abroad.
As a “bio opera,” The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs has plenty of company. Examples from past centuries include Handel’s Julius Caesar, Rossini’s William Tell, and Massenet’s Le Cid. But Bates’ opera belongs to a different, more modern genre. It challenges us to consider the life of an individual from our own times, to consider the meaning of that life, and then to look inward to understand the meaning of that life as it applies to our own. Examples of this more modern approach include Phillip Glass’ Akhnaten and his Satyagraha (about Mahatma Gandhi); Anthony Davis’ X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X; and Terence Blanchard’s Fire Shut Up in My Bones, based on the memoir by writer Charles M. Blow. We might also think of it alongside another opera with digital technology at its heart: Tod Machover’s remarkable Death and the Powers, created in association with the MIT Media Lab.
Should we care about this about cultural context? Weren’t Bates and Campbell entitled to rely on their own creativity and perspective to conjure a unique take on Steve Jobs for the opera stage? Of course they were. But listening is a creative act; as audience members, we must interpret this opera, and we all have representations of Steve Jobs in our pockets or on our desks. His very public life was explored in Walter Isaacson’s biography Steve Jobs: The Man Who Thought Different (2011) and the film Steve Jobs with Michael Fassbender and Kate Winslet, directed by Danny Boyle (2015). The timing of both coincided closely with Bates and Campbell’s version. With all this in our shared environment, we might expect an opera to explore the dramatic contradictions of Jobs’ life: the Buddhist practice of an impatient man who was quick to anger and slow to forgive; his spiritual evolution as he launches a new era of technological empowerment, then confronts the larger world within himself; his feelings about the people and ideas that shaped his critical decisions.
The opera only suggests these questions, and certainly does not answer or even speculate on them. While its musical language offers an immersive dramatic experience, it presents its subject with narrative detachment. Implicit in Bates’ approach is the idea that his characters’ emotions, as well as our own, are up to us to determine as interpreters. Bates has described his compositional approach for The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs as exploding the concept of Wagnerian leitmotifs into individual sound-worlds, with each character assuming not just a figural motif, but an entire sonic identity. Commenting on the original production, Bates noted that “I wanted Steve’s sound-world to have an authenticity to it, whether through the use of internal machine sounds (spinning hard drives or key-clicks) or external sound effects (charming whizzes and beeps).” Jobs’ erstwhile friend and business partner Steve Wozniak is “trailed” by tandem saxophones; his wife Chrisann Brennan is tagged by twittering flutes.
Together, Campbell and Bates have rendered the drama in language that sounds natural, singable, and credible. One can well imagine our collective knowledge of the subject being both a help and a hindrance for the creative team, since we all have direct knowledge of Jobs as a public figure and of how his ideas changed our lives. In a note for world premiere production, Bates observed: “I initially accepted Mason’s invitation to write the libretto…because I love his music, especially the brilliant kinetic energy and theatricality of his sound…I realized that it was an ideal match of a composer to a subject…Sometimes when I got stuck in this libretto, I would look back to 1984 and my first experience with my toaster-sized 128k Mac in my toaster-sized East [Greenwich] Village [New York] apartment.”