The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs: Mason Bates’ Inventive New Opera

by Gabriela Tedeschi

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.

Photo by Ken Howard.

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.

Photo by Ken Howard.

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 himand 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.

Photo by Ken Howard.

(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.

Women In (New) Music: Du Yun’s Opera Angel’s Bone is Writing A New History

by Lauren Freman

Photo by David Adams.

There’s a fun kind of dark—take your Quentins Tarantino, your Samuels Pekinpah—a gleeful brand of hyperrealistic gore that makes you giggle uncomfortably in your seat, where the director gets lauded for “going there,” where a spray of blood is cool, a severed limb is funny.

Angel’s Bone, the 2017 Pulitzer-winning opera by Du Yun, is not that.

When stressed to extremes, our brains deprioritize recording memory accurately, and register emotion in broad strokes: fear, helplessness, pain. For this reason, Angel’s Bone’s heightened, cacophonous abstractions of violence give us a more honest representation of the experience of trauma, more real than an accurate depiction might be. If you think you might be triggered by anything related to sexual assault, drug use, or any kind of abuse, then please take good care of yourself digging into this opera.

Composed by Du Yun with a libretto by Royce Vavrek, Angel’s Bone tells the story of two angels (Boy Angel and Girl Angel, sung by Kyle Bielfield and Jennifer Charles) who have returned to Earth, only to be forced into spiritual and sexual slavery by an ordinary American couple (Mr. and Mrs. X.E, voiced by Kyle Pfortmiller and Abigail Fischer). That’s not a spoiler, that’s the premise: a barely-allegorical indictment of the horrors of human trafficking that doesn’t let you look away.

The staged production premiered in 2016 at the Prototype Festival, an NYC-based festival that showcases new works in “music-theater,” but the studio recording for Angel’s Bone drops September 22 (TOMORROW) on VIA Records. And if you’re near Brooklyn on October 7, you should absolutely attend the album release concert at the National Sawdust Theater (Take me with you? Live tweet it? Please).

This composer is very intentionally changing the landscape of classical music audiences and creators, and I am 100% here for it. In an interview with NPR’s Tom Huizenga this spring, Du Yun expressed a need for the music community to “examine what diversity really means. Diversity also means content, diversity also means styles. Diversity also means, ‘What do we want to say?’ We can’t just say one thing.”

As the music director at Music at the Anthology (MATA), she spearheads projects that amplify underrepresented voices. For example, look forward to “a three-year initiative to focus on the Islamic world, and also a series of solo concerts by female composers, called ‘A Room of One’s Own.’” Her money takes up permanent residence at where her mouth is.

One of my favorite things about Du Yun is that she pledges zero deference to the established conventions of one genre or another. In a Log Journal interview with Steve Smith, she says “We’ll be able to do so many things in so many styles, and if the content calls for that, then let’s just try it.”

While Angel’s Bone is more or less an opera in the traditional sense, each aria (song? track?) is laser-focused toward the style that tells the story best. Mrs. X.E.’s performative piety is represented in allusions to revivalist gospel in “I’ve Been Blessed,” because of course it is. The chorus of angels points to Gregorian Chant, because of course it does. Girl Angel shrieks and croaks recounting her abuse at the hands of “Brick J.” because of course she does.

Photo by Cory Weaver.

I’m prefacing this with a WHOLE LOTTA CAVEATS, but I’ll give it to ya straight: listening to Angel’s Bone was an awful experience. The performances are stunning, Du Yun’s subversion of aural expectations is deeply affecting, and the borderlessness between genres is fascinating. But. Sitting with this opera? Marinating in it for hours, watching otherwise unremarkable suburbanites brutalize extremely vulnerable people? Hurts. So. Bad.

And the question is Why. Why put audiences through that? Why put ourselves through that? Du Yun’s work is too deliberate to be intended as shock for shock’s sake, so why would she bring us so intimately close to the experiences of the victims of trafficking?

So that we would do something.

And there’s so much we can do, from influencing lawmakers to enact legislation that protects trafficking survivors, to educating ourselves, to volunteering our time or money to a nonprofit we care about—you, a presumed proponent of the arts, might be interested in checking out First Aid Arts, which equips trauma-care providers with arts-based resources.

“Art does not solve problems,” Du Yun warns. “Art, at its best, functions to provoke and suggest.” If Angel’s Bone disturbs you—and it will, and it should—then let it provoke you into action. Let it suggest that you help.

If you can, listen to this album. Have an awful experience. And then do something.


If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, call the National Human Trafficking Hotline to report a tip or get help.


 

Lauren Freman is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, and composer, hell-bent on blurring the boundaries between high and low art. Follow her at www.freman.band, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

 

ALBUM REVIEW: “Hopscotch” produced by The Industry

by Maggie Molloy

The opera tradition as we know it has always been lavish and large-scale—but never quite this large.

In 2015, the 21st century experimental opera troupe The Industry produced Hopscotch: a modern-day immersive opera experience collaboratively created by a team of six composers, six librettists, and over 100 artists. Massive in scope, the opera performances took place not in your traditional opera house, but rather, across the grand and sparkling stage of Los Angeles, California.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

That’s right: Hopscotch was staged in 24 cars and countless locations across Los Angeles, crafting a singularly extraordinary experience that was equal parts road trip, architectural tour, immersive theatre, and avant-garde opera.

Audience members were carted around the city in a fleet of limousines that were divided into three distinct geographical routes—each route featured eight chapters (a mixture of car rides and visits to undisclosed sites) lasting approximately 10 minutes each.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

The only limitation? You had to be in Los Angeles to experience it.

Well this year, the Industry has alleviated that restriction with the release of Hopscotch as an album—or more precisely, a key-shaped USB stick that you can plug into your computer or car.

Inspired by Julio Cortazar’s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch), both the live performance and the recording invite the listener to experience the narrative in a non-chronological order, and with multiple singers forming a composite of each individual character’s identity. So, without further ado, let’s meet the characters.

Hopscotch tells the tale of Lucha, an L.A.-based puppeteer who meets and marries a motorcycle-riding scientist named Jameson. But like all great scientists, Jameson loses himself in his explorations of the esoteric. Distraught, Lucha hallucinates an encounter with Jameson in the underworld and attempts, without success, to bring him back to life.

The story borrows heavily from the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice (which is symbolically significant in that this myth was the basis of the world’s earliest surviving opera)—but unlike Orpheus, Lucha overcomes her grief and finds love again with a fellow performer named Orlando.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

Oh, and one other major difference: in Hopscotch, the narrative is nonlinear. The story is presented in episodic chapters which highlight moments of Lucha’s life, each episode acting as its own point of entry to (or a port of departure from) the overarching narrative. In the live performances, this allowed each of the three geographical routes to tell the story in a different order—and as listeners to the recording, we’re invited to experience the opera in any order we choose. Included in the digital CD liner notes is a series of suggested playlists ordered by original performance route, by composer, by librettist, by storyline, and by musical development.

“Opera is about layering—music, image, text, experience,” said Yuval Sharon, Founder and Artistic Director of the Industry, and the creative mastermind behind Hopscotch. “And that’s where Hopscotch is most operatic: it’s a project with many layers that intersect each other, offering each audience member a highly personal experience, their own combination of elements unlike anyone else’s.”

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

The music itself is also highly personal. Each moment in the characters’ lives was shaped by a different composer and librettist, performed by a different ensemble, and was created in response to a specific street or site on the route. The only restriction? Each episode had to be 10 minutes in length—allowing the composers to play with the perception of time inside that specific life moment.

The published recording alternates between live and studio recordings, and between brief excerpts and full scenes. But even beyond those more structural variances, the music itself is also extraordinarily eclectic. The two-hour work bounces from soaring arias to infectious theatre riffs, twinkling lullabies to industrial static, free jazz and improvisation to surrealist choral soundscapes, rainy day ballads to Latin American folk melodies.

Photo credit: Casey Kringlen

And yet, somewhere amidst the swirling anarchy of avant-garde sound art and Baroque opera vocal stylings, the music takes on a much grander purpose. As the Industry’s Music Director Marc Lowenstein describes:

“From evocations of experimental music to musical theater to improvisations to folk traditions to large scale quotations of Monteverdi to installation music, from the intimacy of a single performer in a car with you to the grandness of using the entire city as a stage—as the opera hopscotches through our city, so does the music, always on a road, evoking different scenes, cultures, and sounds. A thousand paths.”

In fact, the opera is an entire web of musical and theatrical threads which connect and intersect in ever-changing ways, subject to each listener’s own experience and interpretation. Conceptually, the project is complex enough to write an entire book on (and in fact, the digital liner notes are 52 pages long), but as you travel through the swirling sonic landscape, the meaning behind the music becomes quite clear:
By creating a vibrant mosaic of so many different sounds, styles, composers, and performers, Hopscotch reminds us that Lucha’s story is also our story—and that we are all subject to these same transcendental experiences of time, memory, and perception.

Photo credit: Dana Ross

In the end, all paths converge and the opera climaxes with a live recording from the Central Hub, a temporary space on the performance route where all the journeys were live-streamed to create a dizzying panorama of life in the city—an ecstatic vision of community in Los Angeles.

“The Central Hub is the possibility of simultaneity,” Yuval Sharon said. “A circle where there is no differentiation between past, present, and future. Separate neighborhoods become one fluid landscape. And the mysterious logic that escapes you from chapter to chapter becomes completely legible, supernaturally, when you can see them all happening at the same time. In a city so infamously without a center, I think creating aspirational centers is crucial.”