Steve Jobs (performed by John Moore) and ensemble in the Seattle Opera production of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” (photo by Jacob Lucas)
“It felt like the story of creative technologists hadn’t been told yet, and yet we live in this world where so much of our communications, our interactions, and our realities are shaped by these individuals that aren’t normally considered artists.”Mason Bates, composer, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs”
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City Presents “The Revolution of Steve Jobs”
From letters to telegrams to text messages, our communication methods have gotten faster, but the purpose has stayed the same: to connect people across vast distances.
Art, too, connects, and a new opera explores this interdependency of humanity and technology through the life of modern tech giant Steve Jobs (1955-2011).
“The story of Steve Jobs has life, death, obsession and betrayal that is the stuff of opera,” said the opera’s composer, Mason Bates. Jobs lived, said Bates, “with a kind of red-hot passion,” which burned both positively and negatively, making him a dynamic figure both in his personal relationships and public persona.
“I think he fits into the pantheon of great operatic subjects,” said Bates.
The Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” the company’s first full theatrical production back in the Kauffman Center, March 11-13.
Bates worked with librettist Mark Campbell, and the opera premiered with Santa Fe Opera in 2017. The album, recorded with Santa Fe Opera and conducted by Michael Christie, won the Grammy Award in 2019. Tomer Zvulun directs the Lyric’s production, which stars baritone John Moore as Steve Jobs. (Moore previously sang the role with the Seattle Opera, one of the co-commissioners.)
Audience reactions to the opera in previous performances in Seattle and Santa Fe were described as “warm, uproarious” (“The Seattle Times”) to “downright raucous” (“The Washington Post”).
“It’s like riding a surfboard; it takes you on an energized experience . . . there’s been such a euphoric reaction,” said Christie.
Christie returns to the Lyric Opera of Kansas City to conduct this presentation. He was part of the creative team that developed the work, too, through the workshop process and into the world premiere and recording.
This wasn’t his first new opera: He participated in Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night” (also with libretto by Campbell) and Mark Adamo’s “The Gospel of Mary Magdalene.”
“I think having been part of the process . . . (for) almost a decade of being in the tinkering level of creation of a piece . . . each experience just gave me more confidence in the humanity of the process,” said Christie.
Working with living composers and bringing new work to audiences informs his interpretation of traditional repertoire, too. “Being part of a creation of an opera told me that we have more authority than we think, because Mozart was a living, breathing person who made changes along the way and wrote for specific voices,” said Christie.
This is Bates’ first opera. “The reason I was drawn to the topic was that it felt like the story of creative technologists hadn’t been told yet, and yet we live in this world where so much of our communications, our interactions and our realities are shaped by these individuals that aren’t normally considered artists,” said Bates.
To Bates, wedding technological advances with the sounds and structures of classical music is “inevitable in the history of music,” similar in the way, say, Hector Berlioz or Richard Wagner used new instruments and new textures to “tell stories in new ways.”
This one-act opera, which runs about 95 minutes, is a series of achronological vignettes that form an emotional arc of Jobs, from idealistic inventor to famed mogul and flawed man, struggling with his mortality and legacy.
“We wanted to almost pixelate his life in different scenes and create juxtapositions that you can’t really get in a fully representational chronological presentation,” said Bates.
These creative juxtapositions make for a powerfully emotive show, but that’s par for the course in opera, said Bates. “Opera is not as subtle as a poem.”
A series of achronological vignettes . . . form an emotional arc of Jobs, from idealistic inventor to famed mogul and flawed man, struggling with his mortality and legacy.
“Knowing that Steve Jobs was the center of this opera, I knew I was going to need some sounds of early Macintosh gear to weave into the opera,” said Bates. “Those are the first sounds you hear: clicks of Mac keys and hard drives spinning. It’s an almost meta-indication that the person you are about to go on a journey with is so transformational that his creations are in the opera.”
It also reminds the audience that “this is a story about now,” Bates said.
These aren’t just sound effects. Bates interlaces electronics powered by a Mac laptop with the acoustic sound of the orchestra. He performed in the pit for the run in Santa Fe but has now created a part for an orchestral player to perform, triggering these elements.
Each character has its own sound world, requiring a virtuoso orchestra. Even with Jobs, Bates melds the sonic influences. “Steve Jobs’ sound world is quicksilver electronica with acoustic guitar,” said Bates. “It has this busy quality to it, such as with finger picking, that I think encapsulates the busyness of his spirit.”
Lyric Opera of Kansas City Cast, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs”
From left to right: John Moore (Steve Jobs), Sarah Larsen (Laurene Powell Jobs), Billie Bruley (Steve Wozniak), Madison Leonard (Chrisann Brennan), Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogawa)
But while electronic music may be considered a novel element in operas, it’s still the singers and the orchestra who are the most important sonic elements. In fact, the final 20 minutes of the opera don’t include any electronic elements at all, as the character of Jobs’ wife Laurene sings about the need to connect, to look up and look out from the devices.
The work is much more about the transformation of the man — Jobs’ evolution — than about the transformative power of his technological output that revolutionized our modern world. Likewise, the electronic elements aren’t intended to overwhelm the traditional medium of opera — singers and orchestra — but rather to intertwine with it in the same way that technology has shaped and changed our lives.
“(Bates) is taking us on a hybrid, symphonic, electric musical journey,” said Christie.
Bringing the story to the Lyric stage is Moore, as Jobs; Sarah Larsen, as Laurene Powell Jobs; Bille Bruley, as Steve Wozniak; Madison Leonard, as Chrisann Brennan, and Wei Wu (from the original cast), as Kobun Chino Otogawa.
“As much isolation and confusion that people have had to experience through the last couple of years,” said Christie, “it’s the perfect time for people to have that totally engrossing, super emotional, energized experience.”
Lyric Opera of Kansas City presents “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” March 11-13 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For tickets and more information, visit www.kcopera.org.