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Ken Howard

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs Review

Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

July 24, 2017, 2:40 pm
That well-worn Lama Foundation/Ram Dass mantra, “Be Here Now,” gets multiple iterations in the finale of Mason Bates’ and Mark Campbell’s 90-minute one-act opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, just world-premiered at the Santa Fe Opera. It’s an ambitious piece whose libretto suggests that Jobs, a famously brilliant and seriously unlikeable guy, might get another chance at becoming a decent human being should Version 2.0 ever happen by. A fanciful thought at best. Just modify the Ram Dass injunction to read, “Be Here Then?"
Some capitalist geniuses like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford and Walt Disney—in whose company Jobs certainly belongs—may deserve a better break in the popular mind. Does Steve? That’s a question to be asked. A cruel denier of warm human relationships, a would-be übermensch whose icy stare out-basilisked the basilisk, Jobs might be comfortable keeping grand company with Milton’s Satan or Marlowe’s Faustus.
Or maybe not. (R)evolution makes a cautious if not always probable move toward humanizing historical Steve. Witness a sensitive, selective libretto by Campbell and an innovative score by Bates that provides multiple impressive, expressive electro-orchestral sound pictures. Campbell’s pointillist text carves the life of Jobs into 19 brief, nonlinear episodes ranging from 10-year-old Steve in his dad’s workshop to a calligraphy class at Reed to a Zen center encounter to a Yosemite wedding plus several more glimpses into the complicated Jobs-story.
Bates’ score works just fine on several levels. Forget the fearsome, distant electronic days of Stockhausen and Subotnick. Bates offers and performs a kinder, gentler use of electronica that works right along with his multi-hued and often brilliant orchestral patterns. This is an all-American opera that pays attention to all-American composers like Copland and Thomson while remaining totally original. When a jubilant Jobs introduces the iPhone to his public, you’ll hear more than a whisper of some Bernstein jamboree. And throughout the evening, you’ll be gratified by the power and propriety of the Bates method. Conductor Michael Christie with the composer keyboarding a couple of Macs in the pit make sure of that.
Taking the title role, baritone Edward Parks offers a nuanced and convincing portrait of this contradictory, impulsive genius, by turns warm and frigid toward his early lover, Chrisann Brennan, chipper then cold toward Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder. Campbell’s libretto tones down Jobs’ impatient perfectionist fury towards his staff. Here Parks shouts, “Wrong, all wrong,” to his cowed subordinates. An accurately recorded comment is, “You assholes, you never do anything right.” Parks is onstage except for a few seconds throughout the evening, and is miked as are all the principals. Normally a big no-no for operatic voices, it’s effective in the electro-world that Bates and Jobs cohabit.
Sasha Cooke sings a faultless, warm, engaging Laurene Powers Jobs with a dignified stage presence and quiet charisma to spare. Her long closing soliloquy/eulogy after Steve’s memorial service is simply the opera’s finest moment. I’m reminded of Susan B [Anthony]’s similar soliloquy concluding Thomson’s masterpiece, The Mother of Us All. It doesn’t get much better than that.
As Woz, Garrett Sorenson makes a mighty impression, first in the dopey duet with Jobs when Woz—impersonating Kissinger on a call to the Vatican—confounds Ma Bell. But much more so when in his high-flying, ferocious “Goliath” aria he confronts Jobs’ monstrous ego and quits in fury the company he co-founded.
The opera makes much of the calligraphic ensō, Zen’s elegant, circular symbol for (vastly oversimplifying here) enlightenment and, as well, suggesting the episodic shape of the piece. Wei Wu’s warm and caressing bass portrays Kōbun, Zen priest, mild jokester and spiritual guide to Jobs, a quiet counterpoise to the unquiet Steve. Kelly Markgraf is the sympathetic papa, Paul Jobs, and apprentice Jessica E Jones is the excellent Chrisann. Susanne Sheston leads the busy chorus.
And then there are the visuals. SFO’s general director, Charles MacKay, dubs this show “the most technologically advanced we’ve ever attempted.” That’s the understatement of the summer. Six rectangular monoliths like massive iPhones glide about the stage in a smooth choreography  representing the 15 or so locations of Jobs’ biography. And magically—I do not exaggerate—they contain, support, display an astonishing array of visual projections that allow us to see realistic images and imagistic impressions of the “(r)evolution.” Words fail.
So. Let the credits roll: director, Kevin Newbury; scenic designer, Victoria “Vita” Tzykun; costume designer, Paul Carey; lighting designer, Japhy Weideman; projection design, 59 Productions; sound design, Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach; choreographer, Chloe Treat.
Whew. Such a crew. And they make it all seem so simple. Which should remind us of the very first Apple marketing brochure’s statement: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.”

 

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