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 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.
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.
Second Inversion and theLive Music Project create a monthly calendar featuring contemporary classical, cross-genre, and experimental performances in Seattle, the Eastside, Tacoma, and places in between!
Keep an eye out for our this flyer in concert programs and coffee shops around town. Feel free to download, print, and distribute it yourself! If you’d like to be included on this list, submit your event to the Live Music Project at least 6 weeks prior to the event and tag it with “new music.”
Wayward Music Series Concerts of contemporary composition, free improvisation, electroacoustic music, and sonic experiments. This month: sound collages, electronic textiles, radiophonic works, and more. Various days, 7:30/8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
PNB: Love & Ballet Love takes many forms—from literal to abstract—during Pacific Northwest Ballet’s four-pack of contemporary hits featuring music by Arvo Pärt, Sufjan Stevens, Joby Talbot, and Beethoven. 6/1-6/10, Various times, McCaw Hall | $37-$187
Seattle Philharmonic Orchestra: Zimmermann An ardent pacifist and humanist, German composer Bernd Alois Zimmermann‘s abhorrence for his country’s actions during World War II resulted in compositions that cried for justice and brotherhood. Seattle Philharmonic performs his final work: “And turning around me, I saw all the injustice under the sun.” Sat, 6/2, 2pm, Benaroya Hall | $20-$30
Ancora: Postcards Ancora performs song suites from four corners of the world: Russia, Japan, Spain, and Iran. The program features songs by and Sergei Rachmaninoff, Bob Chilcott, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Abbie Betinis. Sat, 6/2, 4:30pm, Green Lake Church of Seventh-Day Adventists | $11-$14
Inverted Space Ensemble: UW Composition Studio New music collective Inverted Space performs works by UW faculty composers Huck Hodge, Joël-François Durand, and Chuck Corey, as well as world premieres by student composers Aidan Gold, Irene Putnam, and Nikki Chang. 6/2, 7:30pm, UW Brechemin Auditorium | FREE
Tess Altiveros performs the role of E in Seattle Opera’s new production.
Seattle Opera: O+E Journey to hell and back with a new twist on Gluck’s classic telling of Orpheus and Eurydice. A groundbreaking adaptation of the legendary tale reimagines the main characters as a modern same-sex couple and features an all-female cast and creative team. 6/2-6/10, 2pm/8pm, Seattle Opera Studios | $45
Seattle Mandolin Orchestra: The Wheel The musical worlds of the U.S. and Iran come together in this concert featuring the Seattle Mandolin Orchestra and the Seattle Guitar Ensemble. An exciting new generation of Iranian and American composers will debut works for mandolin ensemble, guitars, strings, and voice. Sun, 6/3, 7pm, Trinity Parish Church (Seattle) | $15-$25
Orca Concert Series: English Quintets Seattle clarinetist and composer Sean Osborn reimagines 19 Beatles songs in his Quintet for Clarinet and Strings. Quintets penned by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Arthur Bliss round out this evening of English music. Mon, 6/4, 7:30pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $15-$25
Seattle Modern Orchestra: In Quest of Spirit In their season finale, the Seattle Modern Orchestra performs British composer Jonathan Harvey’s Bhakti (Devotion): an epic 50-minute work centered around Sanskrit hymns from the Rig Veda and scored for chamber ensemble and quadraphonic tape. Sat, 6/9, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $10-$25
Seattle Symphony Composer-in-Residence Alexandra Gardner.
Seattle Symphony: Wonderful Town A world premiere by composer-in-residence Alexandra Gardner is performed alongside selections from Leonard Bernstein’s Broadway classic Wonderful Town and his cheeky Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs. Thurs, 6/14, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-74 Sat, 6/16, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-74
Seattle Symphony: [untitled] 3 The sonic landscapes of the Southwest come alive through Alexandra Gardner’s playful Coyote Turns and Mason Bates’ richly-colored Red River. Ahmet Adnan Saygun’s lyrical Partita for Solo Cello completes this late-night program in the Benaroya Hall Grand Lobby. Fri, 6/15, 10pm, Benaroya Hall Grand Lobby | $16
Brass Band Northwest: On the Town Brass, jazz, and classical music combine in this sparkling program featuring three dances from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town performed alongside George Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and other works. Sat, 6/16, 7:30pm, Bellevue Presbyterian Church | $10
Kin of the Moon presents a world premiere by Renée Baker.
Kin of the Moon: Tyaga Experimental chamber troupe Kin of the Moon performs the inimitable Renée Baker’s newest piece, Tyaga: Divine Life Suite. Scored for voice, viola, cello, percussion, electronics, and a whole lot of flutes, the piece will also feature guest improvising artists Gretchen Yanover and Greg Campbell. Sat, 6/16, 8pm, Good Shepherd Chapel | $5-$15
Seattle Symphony: Copland Symphony No. 3 Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, with its rousing Fanfare for the Common Man, comes to life alongside music of Leonard Bernstein and John Williams. Thurs, 6/21, 7:30pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-74 Fri, 6/22 (Untuxed), 7pm, Benaroya Hall | $13-55 Sat, 6/23, 8pm, Benaroya Hall | $22-74
Cast and creative team of O + E (Lucy Tucker Yates top row left) – photo copyright Philip Newton
Perhaps for the first time in the history of Christoph Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, a woman will perform as a woman in the role of Orpheus.
Gluck’s beloved opera brings to life the classic myth of Orpheus, the artistic demi-god who traveled to the underworld to reclaim his bride Eurydice, who was killed shortly after their wedding. O + E, Seattle Opera’snewest chamber production presented by the Programs and Partnerships Department, is a re-imagination of the tale that combines Gluck’s timeless score with a translated, updated English libretto. O + E features both an all-female cast of principal singers and an all-female creative team.
In many ways, musical director and librettist Lucy Tucker Yates wanted to preserve the essence of Ranieri de’ Calzabigi’s libretto because of its universal themes of love and loss—but with the role of O the creative team saw an opportunity to explore these themes through an intersectional feminist lens. Because the role of Orpheus was originally scored for a castrato, it is typically sung by a mezzo-soprano in modern productions, but she is always dressed as a man.
“Mezzos want to sing that [role], but always as a dude,” Yates said. “To my knowledge, no one has presented Gluck’s Orfeo with a woman as a woman.”
That’s exactly what the Seattle Opera is doing now, which gives the team the chance to tell the story of a marriage between two women. This was especially of interest for the team because the fear and pain of not being able to be with the person you love is at the core of Orfeo ed Euridice.
“It’s fascinating to us that on their wedding day, Euridice is taken away,” Yates said. “They haven’t gotten the chance to have a future. Women getting married at all, they have a great future to look forward to, but they don’t have a whole lot of past.”
In addition to changing pronouns and the extremely difficult task of aligning syllables of her translations with the music, Yates has adjusted the way that O and E talk about beauty. In the original libretto, Euridice can feel superficial to modern viewers because she is so focused on her external beauty. She can only be brought back to life if Orpheus avoids looking at her, which leads her to worry over whether Orpheus still finds her beautiful. The creative team wanted to find a way to still speak to physical connection while giving more depth to E’s pain and honoring the complexity of the situation.
Hai-Ting Chinn (O) and Tess Altiveros (E) in rehearsal. – photo copyright Philip Newton
“We had a really great discussion on, ‘What is beauty and what would you say to your loved one in this extraordinary circumstance?’” stage director Kelly Kitchens said.
With the all-female creative team, representation was an important topic of discussion behind the scenes as well as onstage. While women often make up the majority of opera audiences, creative leadership roles are still largely held by men. Kitchens and Yates hope that after seeing O + E, young women who may never have thought to aspire to these roles will realize that they have the potential to design and direct, too.
Kitchens also emphasizes that every member of the team was hired because she is an incredible artist and that there’s no reason an all-female team can’t be the most qualified team.
“These women are at the top of their field,” Kitchens said. “They are the artists I love to work with and that’s why I’m working with them.”
O + Eruns June 2-10 at Seattle Opera Studios. For tickets and additional information,click here.
Back by popular demand! To those who missed our24-hour marathon of women composerson International Women’s Day: you’re in luck. Today we’re bringing back another 24-hours of music by women composers from around the globe.Tune inall day to hear works by 220 women who have helped shape, inspire, and expand the world of classical music.
Maggie Molloy, photo by Nicole Schlaeppi.
Plus, in Seattle tonight our Women in (New) Music Founder and Director Maggie Molloy presents a lecture on the history of women composers at the Seattle Opera SOWING Circle’s signature Wine Music Chocolate event.
The SOWING Circle (Seattle Opera Women’s Initiative Group) is a group of women dedicated to embracing and expanding the opera and classical music community in Seattle. As curator and host of this year’s Wine Music Chocolate event, Maggie will share five musical selections by women composers from across history, each paired with a wine by a woman vintner.
To learn more about the SOWING Circle and Wine Music Chocolate,click here.
For some, classical music is a soothing respite from the tragedy and political turmoil of the 20th century—but for many, it’s a way of addressing the social and political injustices of our world head-on. When we are willing to take time, sit down, and truly listen, classical music can be a catalyst for critical discussion, sociopolitical transformation, and meaningful change.
New York-based composer Laura Kaminsky is a strong proponent of the latter view, and has composed an entire library of musical works addressing the major sociopolitical issues of our time, ranging from sustainability and environmental issues to issues of war, genocide, and basic human rights.
November 11-19, Seattle Opera presents a new production of Kaminsky’s As One: a chamber opera about a trans woman named Hannah’s journey to self-discovery—as told through the voices of two singers.
Composed in 2014 with a libretto by Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, the 90-minute chamber opera traces Hannah’s experiences from her youth in the suburbs to her college years on the West Coast and adulthood far beyond.
Directed by L. Zane Jones and conducted by John Keene, Seattle Opera’s production casts baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven as Hannah—but audience members may be surprised to discover that one part does not end where the other begins. Rather, the two voices are intricately intertwined throughout the opera, illustrating the fullness and complexity of the trans experience—as one.
We sat down with Kaminsky for an inside look at this cutting-edge production:
Second Inversion: What were your major inspirations for composing As One?
Laura Kaminsky: I wanted to compose an opera about a transgender individual on the journey to self-acceptance/self-actualization, and decided it needed to be both an extremely intimate piece, but one that, in its intimacy, would be universal and therefore grand.
Two singers—a mezzo soprano and a baritone—share the role of Hannah, As One’s sole protagonist. The two share the singing from beginning to end, as opposed to a less nuanced presentation where the baritone plays Hannah before, the boy, and the mezzo is Hannah after, the girl.
The whole point is that human beings are on a fluid gender spectrum and by having the two voices always on stage and always being Hannah, the audience experiences her fullness as she goes on her journey of self-discovery.
The viola, the middle voice of the string quartet, represents the soul of Hannah, and has several motives that recur and are transformed throughout the work. Also, the opening music of “Paper Route” is transformed in “To Know” and again in “Two Cities,” as these are all arias about self-awareness and the joy of knowing—and being—who one is at their core, and accepting this, even with the difficulties that may be encountered.
The two scenes “Home for the Holidays” and “Dear Son”—about an exchange of letters from Hannah to Mom and then Mom back to Hannah—are poignant depictions of the time when every young adult needs to find space and to begin the separation from parents that will allow for a fully realized and independent life, and the parent knows that the child must do this, but worries. The music for these are related, and they bookend a gentle aria, “A Christmas Story,” about Hannah’s coffee shop encounter with another lonely soul on Christmas Day.
Mark and Kim and I all were very clear from the beginning of our work together on As One that we wanted to tell a specific story about one person’s journey to self-actualization from youth to adulthood. We wanted to make our protagonist fully human and relatable, so that all who encounter As One are able to identify and see that Hannah’s story is both personal and universal, that all of us need to figure out who we are, that there is some pain along the way, but that an honest journey of self-discovery and acceptance can lead to a meaningful life.
We also wanted to increase awareness of the terrible violence against trans people across the globe, and that there is much work to be done, still, to address the ignorance, fear and hatred that continues to this day. The personal is, indeed, political, and Hannah’s victimization at the hands of a menacing bully who attacks her in a dark parking lot, and her subsequent realization that she is not alone, that there are others, and that the world is not safe, is a difficult but important scene—“Out of Nowhere”—but one we all believe needs to be included.
SI: When most people think of opera, they think of 19th century Europe, historic costumes, often-outdated storylines, and 3-hour performances in Italian. What are some of the things that make As One different from (and perhaps more accessible than) your average opera?
LK: In a way, your question is your answer here! As One is under 80 minutes, no intermission; it’s in English—and clear and understandable English. The story is both current and societally relevant, but it is also universal and timeless, so it resonates on many levels. That there are only two singers and a string quartet makes for an intimate theatrical experience and, in most productions (but not this one in Seattle), the use of an original film (by Kim) for the set exemplifies the use of multimedia so exciting to today’s audiences. (Kim, Mark and I are all excited to see what Seattle Opera has decided to do in terms of staging and design given that they are not using the film.) And, again, depending on each director’s interpretation, there are often places where the audience is actively engaged in the performance, bringing it even closer to home.
SI: Many of your scores, including As One, explore sociopolitical topics—what do you feel makes opera a compelling vehicle for exploring these multifaceted issues, and for exploring transgender issues in particular?
LK: It’s all about the storytelling and the power of the human voice to touch us deeply and immediately. It is possible to write more abstract instrumental music on a socio-political theme, and I have many such pieces. Vukovar Trio is dedicated to the victims of ethnic cleansing; my percussion concerto, Terra Terribilis, and my sixth string quartet, Rising Tide, confronts issues around environmental sustainability; Transformations II, which was commissioned by the St. Helens Quartet (who are performing in As One), was composed in the aftermath of 9/11, are some of the instrumental works on sociopolitical topics—and any of these could have been operas instead of instrumental music but in conceiving them, I wanted to use instrumental forces. But for As One, it had to be an opera, not an instrumental work. It just had to be sung.
Baritone Jorell Williams and mezzo-soprano Taylor Raven share the role of Hannah in As One.
SI: What were some of the unique challenges and rewards of composing music for two distinct voices portraying the same person?
LK:The most important thing for Mark, Kim, and me in crafting the story, and then for me to set it musically, was not to have the first half be “the boy” and the second half “the girl.” So structuring the arc of the piece to have both singers always playing Hannah, before, during and after, was a lovely challenge—determining who would sing which aria and convey which piece of the story and which parts of Hannah’s emotional journey. Technically, I had to be sensitive to the few notes that the two voice types have in common and decide how best to use them to create the unity we all wanted—the “as one” aspect.
SI: As One originally premiered in 2014 at the BAM Fisher in New York City, produced by American Opera Projects, and has since been performed around the U.S. and in Europe. In what ways will the Seattle Opera production different from previous performances?
LK: This will be the first production that will be staged without using Kim’s film for the set, so that is something we are all eager to see. Also, this is the first African-American cast, and I think that this will add another layer of complexity and nuance. African American trans women are among the most ostracized and victimized, so casting this with two black singers will be incredibly powerful. I am delighted to say that I’ve known Jorell Williams for over a decade, when he was a student and I was the dean of music at Purchase Conservatory, and so it is a great thrill to be working with him now.
SI: Women are extremely underrepresented in musical leadership roles, and especially in composing. How has being a woman shaped your experiences as a composer?
LK: It’s just a piece of the whole. I am a composer. I’m a New Yorker. I’m a married lesbian. I’m a secular humanist Jew. I’m a progressive thinker. Oh, yes, and I am a woman. It’s shaped everything, as have all the other parts of who I am have, and sometimes it’s been a challenge, and sometimes a blessing, but it’s all I know. This isn’t the best answer, obviously, because it really doesn’t answer anything, but I do think that the day will come when the question doesn’t even have to be asked.
However, I can say that this is a good moment for women in opera. I have been the beneficiary of two grants administered by Opera America from the Virginia B. Toulmin Foundation to support women composers. The first was in support of As One; the second is in support of the new opera that Mark and Kim and I have been commissioned to create for Houston Grand Opera, Some Light Emerges. And Opera America is taking an advocacy and leadership position with its new initiative, the Women’s Opera Network.
SI: What advice do you have for other women who are fighting to make it onto concert programs?
LK:Write the best music you can. Go to concerts. Meet performers, presenters, and producers in the field. Be a part of the larger community. Be brave!
Seattle Opera’s production of Laura Kaminsky’s As One runs Nov. 11-19 at Washington Hall in Seattle’s Central District. Performances are evenings at 7:30 p.m., with a Sunday matinee at 4 p.m. All performances are ages 21+ with a cash bar. For tickets and additional information, click here.