June 26, 2017
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Anson Stevens-Bollen

Everybody Loves (Hates) Steve

Santa Fe Opera reveals the man behind a 21st-century icon

April 12, 2017, 12:00 am

On a late afternoon in early spring, the Santa Fe Opera’s Crosby Theatre is empty but for a few birds fluttering in the rafters. All 2,128 seats in the iconic, open-air auditorium are draped with light brown covers that protect them from the winter elements. The plywood footprint of a set occupies the stage, but most of the summer’s productions are sprouting like seedlings deep in the foundation of the building. Down a flight of stairs in the costume shop, there’s a black mock turtleneck and a pair of blue jeans waiting on a rack. Another stairwell descends to the cavernous basement, where set pieces that resemble giant smartphones cluster in one corner. In July, the minimal, luminescent universe of Steve Jobs will emerge on the stage above.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is a one-act, 90-minute production that’s slated to make its world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera this summer. It’s been in development for over two years, as the librettist, composer, director, actors and crew navigated the shadowy clockwork of an extraordinary life.

Since his death from pancreatic cancer in 2011, Apple’s darkly brilliant co-founder has been the subject of biopics, documentaries and biographies. As the modern myth of Jobs leaps art forms again, the opera is out to prove it can illuminate a new side of the story. (R)evolution tells the surprisingly raw tale of a genius who reinvented communication, but struggled to master human connection amid an illusory digital paradise.

An artist’s rendering of sets that represent Steve Jobs’ work environment.
Set design by Vita Tzykun 

WORDS

“To be frank, I never would have chosen this project. It kind of chose me,” says librettist Mark Campbell. An opera’s libretto comprises a show’s written text, like a script for a movie. Grammy-nominated composer Mason Bates had selected Jobs as the subject of his first opera, and contacted Campbell to pitch a collaboration. Campbell was a fan of Bates’ genre-shattering compositions incorporating classical music and electronica, such as the water-inspired symphony Liquid Interface (2007) and Alternative Energy, a sonic history of modern human industry from 2011. “It was the perfect match between the composer and the subject,” Campbell tells SFR.

He signed on to the project and picked up a copy of Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography, Steve Jobs. The New York Times bestseller is packed with spectacular tales of innovation. In his 56 years on the planet, Jobs was a driving force behind revolutionary advancements in personal computing, animated films, music, telephones and tablets. At product launches, Jobs charmed the world with a twinkle in his eye and history held aloft in one hand. Between those triumphant moments onstage, however, Jobs often succumbed to his inner demons. He stole valuable ideas and vast fortunes from his most loyal friends, manipulating and backstabbing some of his hardest-working employees. Perhaps most damning, when his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan got pregnant in 1977, Jobs denied that he was the father. Even when faced with DNA evidence and forced to pay child support, he distanced himself from his daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs. “He was an enlightened being who was cruel,” said Chrisann, as quoted by Isaacson.

“There are so many people who hated him,” Campbell says. “I thought, ‘Okay, how do I make him likable?’” As Campbell furthered his research, he gathered the threads of a redemption story. Jobs reconnected with his estranged daughter when she was a teenager, and expressed remorse for his failures as a father. His steely willpower could hurt the people around him, but it was accompanied by an unblinking confidence in human potential that frequently inspired and elevated them. With the help of his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, and his spiritual advisor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa, he learned to control his volatile temperament.

“When I found out Steve Jobs was a Buddhist his entire adult life, that was a way into his story,” Campbell says. “I started reading about his relationship with his spiritual advisor, and found more ways to humanize this figure.” Campbell envisioned Kōbun, who died in 2002, as a sort of Ghost of Christmas Past to Jobs’ Ebenezer Scrooge.

In the libretto, Kōbun follows Jobs as he barrels back and forth across the decades, conjuring scenes from his life on the towering screens that surround them. They leap from the launch of the first iPhone in 2007 to the invention of the Apple I computer with Steve Wozniak in his parents’ now-legendary garage in 1976. Jobs drops acid with Chrisann in an apple orchard, and acts out his meet cute with Laurene.

The plot highlights some of Apple’s biggest innovations, but dwells on the personal highs and lows of Jobs’ life rather than his well-known professional achievements. Every scene is based in fact, though some details are shifted to heighten metaphor and symbolism. “I had to read all I could, put it aside, and create a fictional character,” Campbell explains.

The libretto plays with Jobs’ wry, cutting sense of humor and cracks numerous jokes at his expense. Jobs was famous for his extreme diets of fruit and vegetables (“You have to get better, and carrots alone—they ain’t doing the trick,” sings Laurene), his body odor (Chrisann labels him “anti-antiperspirant”) and his tyrannical perfectionism (“I need more gray,” Jobs pouts. “You’ve seen every color there is,” the ensemble retorts).

At just 90 minutes, it’s an opera for audiences whose attention spans have been eroded by the iPhone. “A lot of critics want opera to be long and boring and dull,” says Campbell. “They distrust reaching out to the audience. I don’t believe in opera as high art. I believe that it’s there for the people.” With the libretto complete, Bates set about composing a score to electrify Campbell’s words.

Baritone Edward Parks takes on the role of the titular Steve Jobs.
Set design by Vita Tzykun

 

MUSIC

There’s no direct mention of the iPod (or any Apple device, for copyright reasons) in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, but music’s ability to inspire is a pervasive theme. During Jobs’ psychedelic experience with Chrisann, he hears music emanating from a nearby field. The scene is based on a memory Jobs recounted to Isaacson for his biography, and it translates perfectly to opera. “Brass, reeds, branches, stones, grass,” Jobs muses. “The entire field … What is it playing? Bach!”

In a later scene, Jobs invites Laurene to a dinner date at his home in Palo Alto. She’s weirded out by the space’s lack of furniture, but loves the Ansel Adams photographs that line his walls. “I can look at a fine art photograph and sometimes I can hear music,” Laurene sings. She asks Jobs if he can hear music when he’s creating things. “Used to,” he responds.

The scene takes place in 1987, two years after Jobs resigned from (or, arguably, was forced out of) Apple, and a decade before he was rehired. It’s an emotionally complex moment, landing at a difficult professional time for Jobs that also marked the beginning of personal growth and joy.

“Opera can go places that other forms cannot, because of the abstract aspect of music,” says Campbell. “Music allows us into more emotional places. You can’t always access that by reading a book or watching a movie.”

In a common operatic device, Bates assigned each protagonist a musical motif. As the composer describes in a blog post on his website, Jobs is accompanied by grand orchestral arrangements, “quicksilver” bursts of electronica and the earthy finger picks of an acoustic guitar. Kōbun’s sounds are ethereal, with the vibrations of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs hanging like a veil above the electronic landscape.

“The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acted as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs,” Bates writes. “His buzzing inner energy made for a visionary of Jesus-like charisma, but he could quickly become a cold tyrant.” Laurene’s motif sends “slow-moving, oceanic harmonies” swirling through Jobs’ aural hot lava. Bates weaves different motifs together or pulls them apart as Jobs makes his halting journey towards compassion and empathy. “Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera,” Bates writes.

In the writing and composing process, Campbell and Bates wielded creative power that would be the envy of Jobs. In a single stroke of the pen, Campbell could conjure set pieces that would later take months to realize. As Bates dreamed up arias, he was building an obstacle course of vocal acrobatics that the performers would soon practice to perfection.

“I got a little bit of the music, and it was intriguing for me vocally because it’s pretty high,” says Edward Parks, a baritone who auditioned for the role of Steve Jobs in winter 2015. He got the part, and joined Bates, Campbell and director Kevin Newbury for workshops in San Francisco and Santa Fe.

“I can’t even really fathom how Jobs treated his daughter,” says Edward Parks.
Dario Acosta for Santa Fe Opera

Early on in the process, Parks grappled with the darker parts of Jobs’ story. “I have a young daughter. She’s two years old,” he tells SFR. “I can’t even really fathom how Jobs treated his daughter, but it’s also very intriguing as an actor to try to humanize that emotion and choice. It probably drove him crazy that he wasn’t in control of that.”

Parks devoured anecdotes from Jobs’ personal life, intent on breaking past the barrier of his public persona. He watched the 2015 film Steve Jobs, which was inspired by Isaacson’s book, but found the plot’s rigid backbone of product launches dissatisfying. “He had an image at work, and that image wasn’t so good,” Parks says. “But he also had a life with his wife and kids. Towards the end of his life, he was grappling with mortality. That’s an interesting character, and one that you can connect with.”

Campbell’s non-chronological plot allows Parks to mine raw emotion from dramatic points in Jobs’ life, but the time-hopping is serious a test of performative endurance. Parks appears as Jobs in all but one of the opera’s 18 scenes. “I almost never leave the stage. There might be a moment when I can sneak off and drink some water,” Parks says. He’s been parsing Jobs’ emotional state scene by scene: One moment he must evoke an arrogant 20-something, and in the next a wiser man in the later years of his life. “I don’t necessarily think about what comes after or what comes before,” says Parks.

It’s a feat akin to Zen meditation, which challenges practitioners to fully occupy the present moment. “Be still, Steve,” advises Kōbun in the opera’s final scene. “Simplify. Simplify.”


Steve Jobs shows off the iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference.
Matthew Yohe

DESIGN

In a humble conference room at the Santa Fe Opera, tiny models of each set for this summer’s productions are nestled on shelves lining one wall. The set design for (R)evolution is by far the most minimal: six thin rectangular boxes that are 12 feet high and 6 feet wide will dominate the stage, sliding around on a giant grid to create different spaces. One side of each box features a giant white panel resembling a smartphone screen that will glow in different colors, and opposite side is covered in black material.

For the production’s opening scene, the black sides of the boxes enclose the dusty garage where Paul Jobs gives his adopted son Steve a workbench for his 10th birthday. Later, as Jobs wanders the hills around Cupertino with Kōbun, the boxes part to reveal the fiery New Mexico sunset on the mountains far beyond the stage. The process for moving the pieces is purely analog, with the ensemble and stage crew collaborating to slide them across the grid. There’s also cutting-edge digital technology at work: infrared beacons on the top corners of each box communicate with projectors in the opera’s rafters to line up images on the glowing planes.

“Think of it just like your phone,” says Paul Horpedahl, the opera’s production and facilities director. “They might glow to show you that they’re alive, and then different imagery can start popping out.” Horpedahl and a skeleton crew experimented over the winter with different materials that could make the boxes glow, and they’ve since decided to line the interior of each box with hundreds of miles of LED tape.

The safety and durability of the set was another question, as the Santa Fe Opera’s stage is exposed to the elements. On a stormy night, the boxes could become massive wind sails if they weren’t properly locked into the grid. “There’s all of these things we have to accomplish, that we wouldn’t necessarily have to accomplish if we were indoors,” says Horpedahl. Then there’s the infrared technology, which is a first for SFO. When Horpedahl’s full crew comes in later this month, they’ll test and finesse the system.

There’s a dark irony to the set design as it pertains to the opera’s plot—and to our contemporary interactions with technology. Jobs’ world is filled with hard surfaces that create the illusion of familiarity. Are Apple’s gadgets bringing us closer together, or holding us just far enough away from the joy and chaos of reality? The question already seems overcooked, even though we’re still in the dawn of the Digital Age. For better or worse, it’s impossible to imagine a world in which our iPhones aren’t always an arm’s length away.

Dario Acosta for Santa Fe Opera

 

LAUNCH

“Can I ask you all to turn off your phones?” sings Jobs at the outset of (R)evolution. His request turns out to be a sales ploy for the first iPhone. “You’ll want to throw out your old junk anyway,” he adds a few lines later. In the opera’s finale, set at Jobs’ memorial service, Laurene makes a more sincere plea. Ghostly manifestations of Jobs and Kōbun observe her as she sings. “After this is over, the very second this is over … everyone will reach, reach in their pockets,” Laurene laments. “I’m not sure Version 2.0 of [Steve] would want that. Version 2.0 might say: ‘Look up, look out, look around.’”

“That came from Charles MacKay,” says Campbell, referring to the Santa Fe Opera’s general director. “His only directive to me was, ‘Mark, I don’t care what you write in this libretto, but I really want the audience to think about it for a moment when they reach in and grab their phones.”



The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs Opening Night
8:30 pm Saturday July 22. $43-$236.
Through Aug. 25.
Santa Fe Opera,
301 Opera Drive,
986-5900


 

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