Santa Fe, N.M. — Well. That was cool.
Composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell have created a gripping contemporary tale with their opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at the Santa Fe Opera. While it doesn’t include the high drama we may associate with opera, there’s narrative interest aplenty. Most of us probably have at least some familiarity with Steve Jobs’ story, his personal and professional successes and failures. Bates and Campbells’ opera doesn’t lionize Jobs (Edward Parks); instead, it creates conflict by showing both his successful, albeit often difficult marriage to Laurene (Sasha Cooke) and his deeply problematic relationship with Chrisann (Jessica E. Jones), the mother of his first child.
The opera takes a postmodernist approach to narrative, moving in a non-linear way through time. The focus appears to be on documenting his spiritual development rather than concerning itself with linearity, though projections and notes in the supertitles made it easy to keep track of when a particular scene was taking place. Further, the penultimate scene, which occurs at Jobs’ own funeral, as he and his spiritual adviser look on, is reminiscent of other modernist and postmodernist texts (think Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying) in which characters narrate their experience from beyond the grave.
And about those projections: the production, with projections by 59 Productions, scenic design by Victoria “Vita” Tzykun, and lighting design by Japhy Weideman, is astonishing. Boxes approximately the dimensions of videotape boxes, but probably eight feet tall. These projections included images of Jobs’ childhood home, for the first scene featuring young Steve Jobs (Asher Corbin, in a non-singing role) and his father, Paul Jobs (Kelly Markgraf). Later, the projections include more abstract computer chips, newspaper headlines, and other imagery. Overhead lighting that changes color to match the color of the projections creates a compelling visual for the entirety of the opera’s 90 minutes.
The singing was mostly excellent, with one important caveat: The singers were miked, which is not what we expect from opera. Whether this decision was made to balance out the volume of Bates’ instrumental score, which uses his signature combination of electronics and acoustic instruments, or for some other reason, I am uncertain. But the effect was a bit disappointing for those of us who believe the unamplified voice to be one of the great joys of opera.
Baritone Edward Parks, as Steve Jobs, had an unaffected, everyman timbre, and choosing a baritone rather than a tenor for the central male role added to that effect. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, as Laurene Powell Jobs, has a radiance and glow in every part of her range, providing some of the most delicious singing of the evening. Wei Wu, as Jobs’ spiritual adviser Kōbun Chino Otogawa, has an astonishing lower range, rich and full. I would love to hear his unamplified voice in another production. Jessica E. Jones, a real superhero soprano, plays Jobs’ girlfriend Chrisann. She has a sparkling upper range, as she evidences in the apple orchard scene, which is also the first time I’ve seen characters in an opera drop acid. (The projected apple orchard begins to dissolve and transform as the hit of acid kicks in—absolutely genius, and an interesting postmodern look at perspective—are we viewing this opera from the outside, or the inside?) Tenor Garrett Sorenson, as Steve Wozniak, had a schlubby, ill-dressed exterior, but a radiant tenor, especially as he told Jobs, after Jobs’ rejection of the pregnant Chrisann, that Jobs was a “prick.” (Accurate, but also an operatic first, I’m guessing.)
Conductor Michael Christie and the Santa Fe Opera orchestra availed themselves well in this tricky score, with its metrical games (duples when the meter is in three, triplets when it is in four, writing across the bar lines) that made it difficult to figure out the meter without looking at the score.
This was an opera in which all the elements were balanced—the production, the story, the orchestral music, the singing—rather than one dominating. And the effect worked brilliantly. This is a true postmodernist opera, an opera for a new age. Go see it if you can.