We often see opera as a relic from another time. When we think of opera, we think of beautiful, intricate arias, intense dramatic expression, and epic stories that have little to do with our world today. That’s why the iPhone is just about the last thing you’d expect to inspire an opera.
But like every other art form, opera evolves over time, exploring new stories and musical styles.
One intriguing and prominent step in this evolutionary process is Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which the Santa Fe Opera premiered last year. A live performance recording featuring conductor Michael Christie and baritone Edward Parks as Jobs is available now on Pentatone Records. And this February, (R)evolution will make it West Coast debut at the Seattle Opera, marking one of the first times an opera by a contemporary composer has made it to McCaw Hall.
Without discarding opera’s historic blueprint, (R)evolution masterfully incorporates modern themes and sounds to tell a story that resonates with modern audiences everywhere. Bates and librettist Mark Campbell have painted a musical portrait of Jobs that speaks to one of the biggest concerns our time—connecting with other people in a digital world—while retaining the grandiose music and powerful emotion that has always characterized opera.
The story unfolds non-linearly. Jobs confidently announces in 2007 that he is changing the world by releasing a handheld device that can do everything. After the presentation, his wife Laurene arrives, asking him to take time off because their children miss him and she is concerned about his health. Jobs rebuffs her. Then, he is visited by his deceased spiritual advisor, the Buddhist monk Kōbun Chino Otogawa, who guides him through scenes from his past to help him make sense of his future.
Following them back in time, we watch as Jobs and his similarly gifted best friend, Steve Wozniak revel in the success of their now famous “blue box” in 1976 and dream of toppling the technological establishment. Jobs is struck with a beautiful vision for what their computer should be: something elegant and simple, something that we play like an instrument.
But soon, the dark side to his ambition is revealed when his girlfriend Chrisann tells him she is pregnant and he abandons her out of fear that she and the child will stand in the way of his goals. Still, Jobs’ professional life begins to unravel: he mistreats his employees terribly in his quest for perfection, Apple’s business begins to lag, the board of directors demote him—and all the while reporters are constantly bombarding him with questions about his daughter.
Then in 1989, he meets Laurene, who begins to change his outlook on life, encouraging him to connect with others and helping him find joy in creating again.
These memory fragments are woven together to create a complex portrayal of Jobs and a modern cautionary tale that speaks to the consequences of technology, perfectionism, and ineffectual communication. Yet the story also traces a timeless narrative arc that has its roots in classical opera: Jobs’ talents and ambition, combined with his mortal flaw of arrogance, immortalize him among the ranks of the legendary heroes like Aeneas (and anti-heroes like Don Juan) who star in beloved operas of the past.
(R)evolution features classical instrumentation in conjunction with electronic sounds—beeps, whirs, clicks, dings—which are particularly prominent during the songs that focus on Jobs’ technological visions. While the style of singing is traditionally operatic, the libretto is modern and conversational, emulating the everyday syntax the characters would use in real life.
The score becomes rhythmic, intense, and dark as Jobs descends into selfishness and cruelty. But in the moments where he feels the power of connection and creation, there’s a divine quality to the music, with gliding melodies and warm, lush harmonies. This is the case, too, when Otogawa sings, especially as his songs incorporate Eastern instruments with sacred connotations, like Tibetan prayer bowls. Guitar often features prominently during Jobs’ own arias because the energetic picking is meant to represent the restless inner-workings of his mind.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs paves the way for more operatic exploration of modern stories, electronic instruments, and unique structures. With its dramatic examination of technology, it proves that fixtures of the world we live in today can give rise to stories every bit as epic and visceral as operas of the past.