I attended The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs toward the end of its sold-out run in the Santa Fe Opera’s 2017 season. By late August, the sun was setting before 8 pm and late monsoons threatened in the distance. A vivid tableau presented itself: to the west, the Jemez Mountains darkened while lightning flashes illuminated the sky; center stage, video projections dramatically lit up walls of the ubiquitous iPhone interface.
My actual iPhone lay obediently silenced in my purse. The lightning may or may not have continued on the horizon. I stopped looking, riveted by the spectacle on stage.
I've used Apple products for decades. I obtained my first newspaper internship by lying and saying I knew how to use the paper's brand-new Macs, figuring I'd figure it out if I was hired. I was hired, and I did indeed figure it out. Apple, as we all know now, merged shiny design with idiot-proof technology. I've been an increasingly reluctant Apple user ever since—a busted IIsi lives in my closet, and I suspect will stay there for the duration. My iPhone, on the other hand, is always nearby, although I monitor my once-incessant use of it in deference to my waning attention span, sleep cycle and peace of mind.
Steve Jobs' legacy, his complicated hand in reshaping our relationship to technology, can't be disputed. Nor can its disquieting consequences be ignored.
This evolving tension between science and technology's key advances and the people who live with them is at the core of SFO's Tech and the West initiative, launched with the Jobs opera and set to continue through next year.
Andrea Fellows Walters, the opera’s director of education and community engagement, saw the
world premiere this year coupled with next summer’s
as an opportunity to build multi-year programming with community partners—the Santa Fe Institute, New Mexico History Museum, Los Alamos Historical Society and The Carl and Marilynn Thomo Art Foundation among them. The resulting initiative is an expansive interdisciplinary program that includes lectures, discussions, films and art.
Set in 1945, Dr. Atomic explores the events preceding the first atomic bomb detonation at the Trinity Site in New Mexico. As the opera's title implies, the story mines the narrative of its "hero"—Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer—in much the same way (R)evolution explores Jobs' personal arc. Spoiler alert: Neither man changed the world with a cheerful song in his heart.
Walters, a librettist whose one-act opera Trinity commissioned for SFO's 50th anniversary tackles the same seminal time period, believes the new program is a means toward education and inquiry.
"When we were grappling with the themes, we went back and forth a lot about the sense of the greater good," she says. "Were Jobs and Oppenheimer creating for the greater good? Was a greater good being served, despite destructive outcomes?" Philosophical Pandora's box aside, the Jobs and Oppenheimer operas also present a chance to tell compelling stories, Walters says, while drawing in new opera fans.
Tech and the West's first year of programming centered around the concept of creative expression; next year's—which will feature a keynote by Richard Rhodes, Pultizer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb—will have "modern-day Prometheus" as its thematic backdrop (in Greek mythology, Prometheus gifted fire to the world and was thus punished by Zeus by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten daily).
Both operas create what Walters describes as a "moment in time"—our time—while highlighting artistic innovations, in the orchestra pit and on stage. The West—our backyard and the larger Western culture we inhabit—make these operas particularly resonant.
That backyard contains specific significance for Heather McClenahan, executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, one of Tech and the West's partners. The historical society focuses on vivifying the stories of the people behind Los Alamos' history: Dr. Atomic and Tech and the West's community programs will help those stories reach new audiences, McClenahan says.
"We like to think our history is very relevant to what's happening in the world," McClenahan says. "We are living with nuclear weapons … and I think if you understand the history and the context and the people involved, it helps you contextualize what's happening in the modern world."
After the Jobs' opera ended, I uploaded the unimpressive photo I'd snapped on my iPhone to Instagram with the requisite hashtags. I had tried to capture the sky and the stage but neither was quite as I'd seen it. It's out there now, anyway.
The Interface is a twice-monthly column about science, technology and innovation. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.