Monday, February 18, 2019

The (R)evolutionary design of Vita Tzykun

Meet Victoria “Vita” Tzykun (pronounced tsee-‘koon), Set Designer for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Born in Ukraine, raised in Israel, and now based in New York City, Tzykun has designed sets, costumes, and projections for companies such as The Bolshoi Theater (Russia), Norwegian Opera, Santa Fe Opera, LA Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Wolf Trap Opera, and many other companies and festivals. She made her Seattle Opera debut in 2015 as Costume Designer for Seattle Opera's Semele. Numerous film and TV credits include art direction for Lady Gaga’s ABC Thanksgiving Special, plus production design for several award-winning films and commercials. Tzykun is a founding member of GLMMR - an NYC-based interdisciplinary art collective that fuses the worlds of fine art, audiovisual technology, and live performance. Tzykun holds an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she was awarded a full scholarship, and a BFA (Magna Cum Laude) from Tel-Aviv University.

In your work, you wear many hats, from designing costumes (like your work in Semele) to creating sets for Steve Jobs. Often you occupy the title of "Production Designer." Can you explain what a production designer does? 
A production designer conceives the look and feel of the experience that an audience member interfaces with, be it an opera, a TV show, a rock concert, or a virtual reality event.

You've described The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs as the most technologically advanced opera you've ever designed. What new challenges did you find as an artist, and were some of the most joyous moments for you in creating the world of Steve Jobs?
One of the most challenging aspects of conceiving a visual environment for this production was identifying what might be technologically exciting for audience members to see four years down the line. (We started designing this opera in 2016 and it’s going to San Francisco Opera in 2020). After all, it’s an opera about Steve Jobs, arguably one of the most important visionaries and tech giants in the world. Two dimensional painted flats wouldn’t do here. It was clear from the beginning that the visual world of this opera had to deliver a sense of technological wonder.

One of the most joyous moments in this process was when one of our collaborators, Ben Pearcy of “59 Productions” brought up the idea of using BlackTrax, a technology that allows for real-time tracking of the sets. That’s exactly the kind of solution I was looking for, and it allows for video projections to stay “glued” to the set units at all times.

Set design by Vita Tzykun. Ken Howard photo
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about opera in your view?
In the US, I feel like opera is often treated like a museum relic that is precious and not to be modified. New takes on classical repertoire, and new operas, are too frequently viewed with suspicion.

While classic repertoire is very important, the art form must evolve in order to survive. And it is indeed evolving. We are currently in a midst of a contemporary opera renaissance in America. I have been fortunate to work as production designer for many operatic world-premieres over the past eight years, and these pieces are relevant, gripping, and versatile. The subjects of these operas speak to modern audiences—including audiences new to opera—and they're presented in ways that people can easily understand and relate to.

In many ways, opera is no different than theater and dance, both of which are miles ahead of opera in terms of modernizing older performance practices. Think about the vast amount of modern dance and modern theater that has been created throughout the 20th, and the beginning of the 21st centuries. Opera has a lot of catching up to do, but it’s on it’s way, and it's exciting to watch.

In Seattle, many people are huge fans of Semele (including the amazing Pasithea and Somnus costumes that you created!). What was the most fun part about working on that show?

Oh, that’s great to hear! I love that production and am very proud of it, particularly the collaboration between several Seattle Opera departments. In order to create Somnus' 15-foot-long cape that was covered with glowing constellations, we worked with the lighting department. And and to create Pasithea’s corseted Venus-like shell, we needed the props department. The folks who work in lighting and props rarely visit the costume shop, but that time around, we had to work closely, and the results turned out to be magic!

What was your overall strategy for creating a sense of wonder in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs?
The strategy was to create a scenic world that would shift physically and digitally at the exact same time, while being sound-reactive. In close collaboration with video and lighting designers, Ben Pearcy and Japhy Weideman, we have achieved just that.

What was it like working with Lady Gaga outside of the opera world?
Everything moves much faster in the Pop/Rock music and TV worlds, but I’ve production-designed for film quite a bit before shifting my main focus to designing for opera over the past few years, so I was prepared for that.

Lady Gaga is a very hard-working, professional, and collaborative artist, and her work ethics and methods were inspiring to watch. She was very involved in the design process, spearheading the visual concepts for her shows.

Vita Tzykun provided Art Direction for Lady Gaga's ABC Thanksgiving Special. 
In (R)evolution, you worked with lighting professionals to line the stage with ribbons of programmable “neon flex” lights that change colors, animate, and pulsate according to the beat of the music. This effect is used to reflect Jobs’ inner thoughts at his most creative moments. Can you describe a moment or two in the show where you feel like the lighting, the storytelling, etc. just comes together in an amazing way?
One of our main objectives was to blend the boundaries between scenery, lighting, and video. Often times, when the scenery moves from side-to-side, but the video projected on it moves from front to back, the audience can’t quite grasp how exactly items are moving. In this show, it’s hard to tell what is video and what is lighting. And when both lighting and video pulsate to the beat of the electronic track, it further promotes that sense of oneness. One example is the end of Steve’s Product Launch, his first big aria in the opera when he unveils the first iPhone. At the end of it, you can hear an electronic sound that reminds us of powering down, Steve doubles over, exhausted, scenic monoliths on stage start changing their configuration, as lighting and video pulsate like his heart beat. If in the beginning he controls the “matrix” on stage, then towards the end, it’s evident that the “matrix” controls him.

The visuals you created for this show help the audience get inside Steve’s head. Based on what you’ve learned through working on this opera, what do people not know about Steve Jobs?

Many might not know that Steve Jobs was a practicing Buddhist and that for most of his life he had a spiritual teacher, Kōbun Chino Otogawa. The juxtaposition of a practicing Buddhist becoming one of the wealthiest people on the planet and inventing a device that everyone craves and are addicted to is quite something. But that’s one of the most interesting aspects of Steve Jobsjust how full of contradictions he was. 

Set design for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Vita Tzykun. 

Why is The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs an important work in the operatic canon? 
Because it touches on subjects that are relevant to audiences today, and to audiences many years down the line. The opera fuses acoustic and electronic elements beautifully. New and traditional collide to create a unique soundscape that is still quite unusual in large-scale opera.

You were born in Ukraine, but raised in Israel and lived there during the first Gulf War. What was your experience with the arts growing up?

The arts are a common denominator. In the USSR, Israel, the US, Europe, Asia everywhere I've lived, no matter the language, people can share the language of visual art and music. The arts connect us to each other.  

During the Gulf War, while we were sitting in a sealed room with our faces covered in gas masks fearing a chemical attack, my father, who is a visual artist and caricaturist, worked on drawing political caricatures for the Israeli newspapers. It was a sight I will never forget: him drawing with his right hand, while wearing a gas mask, and holding a flash light in his left hand. He would then drive to deliver the caricatures to the newspapers, with my grandfather who was a WWII veteran who didn’t fear the Gulf War as much as we did. Periodically, they had to stop the car on the side of the road, then lay down next to it when they heard air-raid sirens. When the sirens stopped, the two of them got back into the car and kept driving. The show must go on. Art has to be created, delivered, published, and absorbed, and no wars can stop that.

Seattle Opera's Semele (2015) photo by Elise Bakketun 
A reoccurring criticism of our increasingly digital, high-tech world is that we are losing connection to our humanity. And yet, you are someone who harnesses technology in your artistic work. Do you think that technology can help us in fact, connect to our humanity?
Technology is just a set of tools. It can be helpful, just as much as it can be destructive. It’s up to us what we do with it.

Projectors, sewing machines, lighting, cameras, are all “technology,” so in that sense, even the simplest show uses a lot of technological support. I look at technological advancements as an opportunity for richer storytelling, but every piece I design requires different levels of technological tools.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23-March 23, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera on our Spotlight Guide.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Adam Lau in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

The many faces of Adam Lau! Pictured: Lau as Ferrando in Il trovatore, both in rehearsal and in performance; Lau as Makoto Kobayashi, and Lau as The Speaker in The Magic Flute. Philip Newton photos

By Samantha Newland 

For The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Seattle Opera is proud to welcome back Adam Lau, who performed in The Magic Flute (2017) last season, and in the world premiere of An American Dream (2015). The San Francisco native will practically be a local by the opening of (R)evolution, following his performances as Ferrando in Seattle Opera’s Il Trovatore last month. In (R)evolution, Lau sings the role of Kōbun Chino Otogawa, a Japanese Zen priest who was Jobs’ mentor in life and BuddhismKōbun works to guide egocentric Jobs in balancing business and well-being.

“He nurtured so many people, most famously Steve Jobs," Lau said. "He had a pretty dry sense of humor, which you get a lot of in the opera,” Lau says of his character. “His delivery is dry and direct, similar to Zen Buddhism: it cuts through the noise and goes to the heart of the matter."

Kōbun Chino Otogawa, left. In 1991, Otogawa presided over the marriage of Jobs and Laurene Powell.

Lau also reflected on Kōbun's role as a father-figure. The opera explores Jobs’ feelings of abandonment and fractured identity due to his biological parents' putting him up for adoption. In the opera, the audience sees Jobs' search for a leader and for structure in his life, which adds humanity to a character often seen as robotic.

“Jobs was searching for fathers throughout his entire life, but in the end, he sort of became a father to us allin the way he made us think. He had the foresight to gift us with something before we even knew we wanted it. I think this gave him peace, made him whole. He pulled us into the future,” Lau said.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23-March 23, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera on our Spotlight Guide.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Steve Jobs: also a 'traditional' opera

Minnesota Opera's La Bohéme; Dan Norman photo. Santa Fe Opera's The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs; Ken Howard photo; and Metropolitan Opera's Carmen; Ken Howard photo.

By Melinda Bargreen 

We’ve all met the operagoers whose list of preferred operas consists of (1) Carmen, (2) La Bohéme, and (3) “No, thank you.”

Of course, it’s perfectly understandable to want to hear (1) and (2). But an art form will gradually stultify if it only presents the beloved classics over and over again. And audiences will stultify right along with them. If opera as art form and entertainment is to survive, it needs to be brought into the 21st century. And that’s exactly what Seattle Opera is doing with its upcoming production of a work that is already being hailed as a modern classic: Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

A visit earlier this month (between snowstorms) to the Seattle Opera rehearsal hall in the new Opera Center reveals an opera that’s really a fast-moving, fascinating series of scenes in the life of computer visionary Steve Jobs – scenes of manic joy and existential despair. These episodes illuminate some key developments in the life of Jobs (sung by JohnMoore), each shedding a different light on the genius’ road from brash, heedless youngster to a reflective adult who must face his mortal illness.

Madison Leonard portrays Chrisann Brennan, Steve Job's girlfriend, in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Philip Newton photo
And yet, for all its 21st-century trappings,” this opera is utterly familiar. It’s about love and death, just as certainly as is La Bohème – another opera about youngsters and mortality. There really is an “evolution” here, as well as Jobs’ famous “revolution” of the world of computers (as the co-founder of Apple). We watch him evolve from a heedless, callous young man who declares to his pregnant girlfriend, “Get rid of it. I don’t want it – not now, not ever. I’ll say it’s not mine.” With the guidance of his Buddhist spiritual adviser, Kōbun Chino Otogawa (Adam Lau), we see Jobs confronting his mortality, realizing that a key mission for his time on earth is to “connect.”

Clocking in at about an hour and a half, in a rapid succession of scenes without intermission,

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs thrives on intimate conversations and confrontations. The score, combining electronic and acoustic music, is in great hands with conductor NicolePaiement, whose command of brand-new repertoire has led to an imposing list of world-premiere and U.S.-premiere credits in major opera centers.

Ken Howard photo for Santa Fe Opera
It’s not all angst and Zen. For instance, there’s a gleeful, exuberant scene in which Jobs and his collaborator Steve Wozniak (Garrett Sorenson) cavort around Wozniak’s garage after discovering how to make free phone calls with a “blue box” device. The exultant kids, who call the Vatican posing as Henry Kissinger, gloat that they’ve “brought Ma Bell to her knees,” and vow to “take down the corporate giants.” Great as the scene seemed in rehearsal, the slight, tousle-haired Paiement wasn’t quite satisfied: “Could we do that again? The timing is just a little off.” Her own sense of timing is certainly remarkable; in a score with lots of little twists and turns, she cues the singers with great precision; tiny inaccuracies don’t sneak past her.

John Moore (Steve Jobs) and Garrett Sorenson (Steve Wozniak) in rehearsal for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Philip Newton photo
Director Kevin Newbury is still tweaking the action; he is the kind of director who leaps to his feet and shouts, “Hey! I have an idea!” at a key point in Scene 2. His ideas about placement and movement are very specific: “When you come in, be a little more circuitous,” and “I love the walk around the blanket . . . but only once.” Newbury, who directed this opera in its world premiere in Santa Fe last year, is intimately familiar with the challenges of playing Steve Jobs: “It’s pretty formidable, this role,” he remarks to Moore, who agrees (“I’m still getting my head around it”).

Especially in this tech-obsessed region – home of Amazon and Microsoft – this opera is about as relevant as it gets for Seattle-area music lovers. Even if your operatic preferences incline toward Spanish toreadors and French bohemians, it just might be time to give West Coast computer geniuses a try.

Maestro Nicole Paiement makes her Seattle Opera debut with The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Philip Newton photo
From back to front: Seattle Opera Head of Coach Accompanists David McDade, Assistant Conductor Phil Kelsey, and Coach Accompanist Jay Rozendaal in rehearsal for Steve Jobs. Philip Newton photo

Melinda Bargreen is a Seattle music authority. She has been writing about classical music for the Seattle Times and other publications for four decades. Bargreen is also a composer, book author and professor. Learn more about Melinda's work on her website

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23-March 23, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera on our Spotlight Guide

Amplification in the opera house?! What gives?

Bill Mohn photo

By Jonathan Dean, Seattle Opera Dramaturg

For many of us, it’s very simple: opera is the art of singing without amplification. That’s right, in a typical opera at McCaw Hall, even when you’re sitting at the back of the second tier you are enjoying the actual sound of the singers’ voices, no microphones needed. The purity of that transaction—voice to ears—is one of the chief attractions of the art form, and increasingly, the opera house is one of the few places in the world where unamplified voices, in all their individuality and human beauty, are presented in public. 

That’s not to say we don’t have microphones. Opera companies have used amplification for decades, for various purposes: recording operas for broadcast or archive, or helping singers and orchestra hear each other. Amplification has only ever affected the Seattle Opera audience experience in operas with lots of spoken dialogue (such as The Magic Flute or Beatrice and Benedict), or for offstage ‘special effect’ situations. Unlike opera companies who use amplification to correct for unfortunate acoustics, we are blessed with a performing space ideally designed to deliver unamplified voices, blending with traditional instruments, to audience ears. At McCaw Hall, no such ‘enhancement’ is necessary.

John Moore as Papageno in The Magic Flute. Jacob Lucas photo 

Alek Shrader (Benedict) and Daniela Mack (Beatrice). Jacob Lucas photo
But new technology has a way of transforming not just the means, but also the end, of human activity. Acoustic guitars blend beautifully with unamplified voices. But a singer needs a microphone to blend with an electric guitar. Without it, the voice wouldn’t sound integrated, and might easily be overpowered. Going back several decades, opera composers such as Philip Glass and John Adams began incorporating electronic instruments and sounds into their opera orchestras, deeply enriching their sound worlds. They use microphones to blend the singers’ voices into these new sound worlds, where the source of the sound is not acoustic, but rather a set of speakers in the auditorium. The music Mason Bates has written for
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs requires the singers’ voices to be amplified; that way, the voice comes from the same speakers where the electronic sounds originate. You might not even notice that the singers are amplified; the goal is less about making them louder, and more about incorporating the voices with the electronic sounds. This approach creates an important new role, that of the sound designer, who now joins the other members of the opera’s creative team.

Photo by Ken Howard.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23-March 23, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera by reading our Spotlight Guide

Friday, February 8, 2019

Method Acting, Steve Jobs, and Opera

John Moore's headshot contrasts with a photo of him in rehearsal for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs; Philip Newton photo.
In this interview with BBC journalist Brian Wise, baritone John Moore (Steve Jobs in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs) talks more about his approach to personifying the visionary CEO, known for his shaved head and turtleneck:

“I’ve lost 20 pounds over the last year,” Moore said. “I’m at the smallest weight that I’ve ever been ... I normally have beautiful, curly brown hair down to the middle of my back and (decided to) shave it completely off for this role and to look somewhat gaunt...I get excited about being the truest representation that onstage that I can be and because it’s Steve Jobs, there’s nothing to hide behind. It’s a black shirt and blue jeans and for him at that time, a bald head and some scruffy facial hair.”
Read the full article on Brian Wise's website, and learn more about Seattle Opera's production on our Spotlight Guide

Friday, February 1, 2019

Steve Jobs: What the press are saying

Ken Howard photo
Following the world premiere’s “rapturous reception” (The Washington Post) of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the Grammy-nominated smash hit makes its West Coast debut at McCaw Hall in February 2019. Learn more about what the press are saying about this opera all over the United States, and internationally. 

"Just as the first iMac said hello when you turned it on, 'The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs' says hello when you turn it on. It is an opera full of complex inner workings but simple on the surface, totally user-friendly." -Los Angeles Times 

"Bates’ music is some of his most inventive and alluring to date, smoothly interfacing with the pixelated dramaturgy as seamlessly paced by director Newbury. The score’s pounding, popping, buzzing orchestral groove, overlaid with electronica at key moments, effectively represents the restless mind of Jobs, forever operating at warp speed." -The Chicago Tribune

"A triumph." -Washington Post

"A gripping and illuminating musical, dramatic, and visual achievement—one that transcends the divides of generations and genres—has just joined the operatic canon." -San Fransisco Classical Voice

"...a theatrically arresting production (that) draws you in at every opportunity." -SFGate

"This is a true postmodernist opera, an opera for a new age. Go see it if you can." -TheaterJones

"At the end of the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the audience roared its approval as if it had witnessed a blockbuster musical." -The Financial Times 

"Exhilarating, moving, shocking, and enlightening." - San Fransisco Classical Voice

Ken Howard photo
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23, 24, 27 and Mar. 2, 6, 8, & 9, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera by reading our Spotlight Guide

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

State of the company

Sean Airhart photo

A letter from Seattle Opera Board President, Brian Marks

Dear Seattle Opera supporters,

I am absolutely thrilled about our new season, and I hope you are too. Passion, fantasy, and intrigue will abound in performances of Rigoletto, Cinderella, and La bohèmeEugene Onegin, which was last presented by the company nearly two decades ago, and Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a compelling new drama about the jazz icon, in combination with a recital by the talented Costa-Jackson sisters—Ginger, Marina, and Miriam—makes the 2019/20 season our biggest in recent years. In addition, with the growing Seattle population, we are adding more performances of favorites Rigoletto and La bohème. We’re also introducing the first weekday matinee since the opening of McCaw Hall. We look forward to welcoming middle- and high-school students to this performance of La bohème.


And if that’s not enough, we’re adding a chamber opera to the season’s line-up in November 2019. The Falling and the Rising is a new American opera we commissioned based on the true stories of active duty soldiers and veterans. It will be the first chamber production in the Opera Center’s Tagney Jones Hall. But more importantly, this opera demonstrates our commitment to telling stories that speak to the hearts and minds of Seattleites and Washingtonians. This story is especially relevant because of our community connections to the armed services. The Falling and the Rising follows other works that illustrate our pledge to telling diverse stories. Among them are O+E, a retelling of the classic tale of Orpheus and Eurydice that featured women in the leading roles; and An American Dream, a story inspired by two real-life Puget Sound women: a German Jewish immigrant worried about family she left behind and a Japanese American forced to leave her home.


Many of you are eager for an update on the board’s progress toward naming a new General Director. I can report that the search committee has retained an executive search firm to assist the board. Together we are hard at work identifying potential candidates who closely align with the company’s mission, vision, and values. We will report to you again when a candidate has been selected.

What’s more, any candidate to lead Seattle Opera will want to know what our plans are for the Ring. We know you do too. Seattle Opera has a long history of presenting Richard Wagner’s Ring. In 1975, we were the first to stage a complete cycle in the United States in more than 35 years. That production and subsequent presentations helped build U.S. audiences for this important repertoire. However, in recent years, several U.S. companies have presented partial or complete Ring cycles, reducing Seattle Opera’s distinct exclusivity with this work. We are proud of our legacy of bringing this important work to the U.S. opera canon.

Building a new production of the Ring is a significant financial commitment for any opera company and will require a substantial fundraising campaign to create and present an entire cycle set. Given the costs and the planning timeline required, the decision to mount a new Ring will be between the new General Director and the Board of Directors and should not be expected before the company’s 60th anniversary in 2023.


Thank you to all who attended one of our opening Opera Center events in December. It was a festive and celebratory month! Our staff and artists are now settling into producing opera in this beautiful new facility designed for 21st century opera. As Aidan has reported in past State of the Company emails, the opening of the Opera Center is an opportunity for the company to evaluate all of its facilities. In keeping with the growing practice of co-creating new productions as we have recently done with Porgy and Bess, Aida, and The Barber of Seville, Seattle Opera continues to collaborate with other companies both nationally and globally. Upcoming co-productions include The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Carmen, and Eugene Onegin (the latter of which is a joint effort by five US opera companies). These collaborations allow us to stage reimagined favorites in the grand style you enjoy, while simultaneously reducing our construction costs. Consequently, in recent years the fabrication and construction work for opera sets at our Renton Scene Shop facility has declined. Since the start of the 2016/17 season through our recently announced 2019/20 season, only two new mainstage opera sets (out of 20) were completed start to finish out of the Renton facility. In addition, much of the work we have been doing at the site recently, such as receiving incoming sets, constructing components of set pieces, and making repairs, is shifting to the Opera Center. As a result, the work in Renton will decline further.

In the past year, the Board of Directors has analyzed future uses of the Renton Scene Shop facility and has recommended the sale of site. We will begin this process by talking with parties who may be interested in purchasing the site and continuing its use as an independent scene shop. The sale of the property is a critical part of the company’s overall financial well-being and will help secure some of the funding needed to stage future mainstage performances in the coming years. I want to assure you that this will not impact what you see on stage or your overall opera experience. In fact, most large US opera companies do not operate sizable scene shops such as the facility we own in Renton. Companies in our industry are working more closely together to design and construct sets that we can share and enjoy with all of our audiences.


The Opera Center will deliver more opera programs with each coming month but there is a very special event coming up that will give you a one-night-only experience of opera and music. Please join me at our first ever Big Opera Party on Friday, May 10. The festive night starts with a reception in the Opera Center, followed by dining on the stage of McCaw Hall surrounded by the set of Carmen. In addition to performances and a live auction of exclusive opera experiences, the merriment continues with an after-dinner dance party. Proceeds raised at the event will benefit Seattle Opera programs and overall operations. You can reserve your place at the party at or by calling 206.389.7669.

Your Seattle Opera Board of Directors is dedicated to supporting this company and stewarding your investment so that Seattle Opera continues to create opera we all love.

With gratitude,

Brian Marks
President, Seattle Opera Board

Monday, January 28, 2019

The Music of Communication: Notes from Composer

Mason Bates

By Mason Bates, composer  

The story of Steve Jobs exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication—a thematic crossroads that opera can explore unlike any other medium. Opera, after all, can illuminate the interior thoughts of different characters simultaneously through the juxtaposition of individual themes. That makes it an ideal medium to explore a man who revolutionized how we communicate.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs explodes the concept of Wagnerian leitmotifs—the melodies assigned to various characters—into soundworlds. Each character in this opera walks onstage with not only a theme, but an entire sonic identity. As they interact, their musics (sounds) collide, blending almost as if mixed by a DJ. In my symphonic music, I have often looked to exotic forms to pull new sounds out of me, whether in an “energy symphony” or an anthology of mythological creatures. In this opera, that happens on the level of character. The music of Steve Jobs is a quicksilver blend of orchestra and whirring electronica, the latter of which was partly built using samples of Mac gear. I wanted Steve’s soundworld to have an authenticity to it, whether through the use of internal machine sounds (spinning hard drives or key clicks) or external sound effects (charming whizzes and beeps). Gary Rydstrom of Skywalker Sound was an indispensable partner on this front, as he created many Mac sounds during his time at Apple in the 1990s. Accompanying Steve is also an acoustic guitar—an instrument whose predecessors appeared quite often in early opera, but one that has rarely been heard in opera houses since. Jobs loved the guitar, and the energetic sound of a fingerpicked steel-string illuminates the busy inner world of a restless man.

Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017.
In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera—which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again. The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acted as the electrical “ground” to the positive and negative charges of Jobs. His buzzing inner energy made for a visionary of Jesus-like charisma, but he could quickly become a cold tyrant. Laurene is a soulful and strong woman who convinces Jobs of the importance of true human connection, the person who reminds him that people don’t have one button: they are beautifully complicated. Her slow-moving, oceanic harmonies collide with the frenetic music of Steve, and ultimately she succeeds in slowing down his busy inner world. 

Another key character is spiritual advisor Kōbun, an important yet overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by master librettist Mark Campbell. A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drifts across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely “acoustic,” sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo. The “mystical bass” trope in opera has a long history (think Sarastro). This opera continues that tradition with the enhanced storytelling of electronic sounds, which eerily blow across the mesmerizing sound of a low bass voice.

Finally, we have Steve Wozniak and Chrisann Brennan, important foils both musically and dramatically. Woz is always trailed by a pair of saxophones, whereas Chrisann is accompanied by hummingbird-like flutes. These two characters know Steve from the early days, and through their eyes we witness his stunning transformation.

Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017.
Anchoring the imaginative, non-chronological storyline are numbers—real musical numbers—and a clear-as-crystal through-line: how can you can simplify human communication onto sleek beautiful devices—when people are so messy? This opera travels with Jobs on his journey from hippie idealist to techno mogul and, ultimately, to a deeper understanding of true human connection.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23, 24, 27 and Mar. 2, 6, 8, & 9, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera by reading our Spotlight Guide

A Revolution Comes to Seattle

Mark Cambpell
By Mark Campbell, librettist

The last time I worked with Seattle Opera was about two years ago when the company presented a splendid production of As One, an intimate chamber opera about the emergence of a transgender person that I co-created with Laura Kaminsky and Kimberly Reed.

This opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, is quite a different animal. About a whole different kind of emergence.

My collaborator Mason Bates chose Jobs as the subject for an opera. While I knew his choice was audacious and potentially treacherous, I also recognized that it was the perfect pairing of a composer to a subject matter, especially considering Mason’s success at bringing electronic music to the orchestra. But as excited as I was about working with Mason, I was initially wary of creating another “bio-opera,” especially about a figure everyone knows (or thinks they know).

How could I create an original (and entertaining) story that might dispel people’s notions—good or bad—about the man? What would opera add to the already well-trampled paths of the books and movies that came before it? What makes the general public so obsessed about a person who may have helped humanize technology but came up pretty short in the human department himself? What makes Steve Jobs, dare I ask, sympathetic?

It started with research. Discovering that Jobs was a Sōtō Zen Buddhist most of his adult life gave me a welcoming entrance into the story. Learning that Buddhists sometimes walk in a meditative circle called a kinhin helped me establish an action in the story—and was also very relevant to Jobs who did the very un-California-like thing of going on long walks to help solve his problems. More of a circular idea emerged when I found out that Buddhist monks often perform the ritual drawing of a round character every day called an ensō.

Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017.
I began to conceive a story in a non-traditional, circular way in which the narrative springs from the afternoon and evening of a day in 2007 when Jobs was likely forced to accept his own mortality and motivated to follow his own advice: “You can’t connect the dots going forward. You can only connect them going backward.” I decided to add a character to accompany Jobs on his backward-looking dot-connecting journey: his own spiritual advisor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa. While this libretto is mostly set on that single day in 2007 and Kōbun inconveniently died in 2002, I chose to honor that old operatic tradition of ghosts…

(A serendipitous side note about Kōbun… I enlisted my friend and librettist Kelley Rourke, creator of Odyssey presented by Seattle Opera's Youth Opera Project, March 1-3. Kelley, is a Buddhist teacher. I asked her to review the libretto to make sure the portrait of the character felt authentic. Since Kelley does not study that particular kind of Buddhism, she suggested I seek help from the Brooklyn Zen Center. I emailed them anonymously and, within an hour, received an inspiring response from Teah Strozer, who was then the Guiding Teacher at the Center. She informed me that she not only studied music at the University of Southern California, but was also a student of Kōbun for many years, and even knew Steve Jobs. Ms. Strozer took the time to read the libretto and her advice about Kōbun was absolutely invaluable.)

Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017.
In his circular path, Jobs’ memories arrive through emotional rather than chronological connections as he reviews the formative influences and events in his life: his exposure to the aesthetics of minimalism in a calligraphy class at Reed College; his vision of a field becoming an orchestra under the influence of acid; his desire to subvert corporate culture in a prank he and Woz played on Ma Bell; the youthful problems of his relationship with Chrisann Brennan; the ego that consumed any joy he had in his work and eventually led to his firing from a company he founded; and finally meeting Laurene Powell, a woman that helped him understand human fallibility.

The “(R)evolution” in the title refers more to the orbicular nature of the narrative than to the revolution in technology Jobs helped hasten. (I also could’ve called the opera The Long Walk of Steve Jobs, but I think new opera is too much of hard sell already to put the word “long” in a title.)

Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017.
(Another sidenote…Sometimes when I got stuck writing this libretto and needed inspiration, I would look back to 1984 and my first experience with my toaster-sized 128k Mac in my toaster-sized East Village apartment above the kitchen of an Indian restaurant. The typefaces, the smiling face graphic, the ease in turning it on and off…these innovations are taken for granted now, but were revolutionary at the time. I became a “Macolyte” pretty early on and it was revisiting those past moments that helped me understand how Jobs democratized the computer.)

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs premiered at Santa Fe Opera and immediately became the biggest hit in the company’s history. Some critics were apoplectic that I hadn’t eviscerated Jobs, that I tried to make him sympathetic and didn’t write their version of the man; some saw operatic Armageddon in the mic’ing of singers. But the critcs’ digs made no difference. The audience was thoroughly engaged and entertained, and, I believe, moved at the end of the opera.

Photo © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017.
However, after we opened and later, following the second production at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, I felt that the opera needed some improvement. The character of Laurene was underwritten; there should’ve been more clarity about Kōbun’s death; and the ending was smudged with too much sentimentality. I changed a phrase here or there, greatly extended one of Laurene’s scenes, and tightened the ending to give it more impact. A Broadway show is performed before an audience for weeks and weeks of previews; new operas are usually given one dress rehearsal with an audience. I was grateful for these chances to improve the libretto—and took them.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
is attracting a new audience to the opera house and that makes me very proud. Seattle Opera was one of the first companies in this country to identify that the old format of producing operas no longer works; that we need new and relevant—and entertaining—operas to prevent this form we love from dying. I couldn’t be more grateful to be here again with another one of my works, albeit very different from the previous one the company produced. I really hope it won’t be too long before I’m back here again.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays Feb. 23, 24, 27 and Mar. 2, 6, 8, & 9, 2019 at McCaw Hall. Learn more about this opera by reading our Spotlight Guide

Friday, January 18, 2019

Seattle Opera offers free tickets to federal workers

Jacob Lucas photo
Seattle Opera is pleased to offer tickets to furloughed federal governments workers. Workers can receive two free tickets to the company’s performances of Il trovatore at 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 19 and 23, and at 2 p.m. on Jan. 20. To redeem, simply present your federal government ID at the McCaw Hall box office before the performance. The box office opens two hours prior to performances; 5:30 p.m. for evening performances and noon for the matinee.

“We at Seattle Opera are grateful for all that our federal workers do, and wish to show our solidarity and thanks by inviting them to enjoy a night of beautiful music at McCaw Hall,” said General Director Aidan Lang.

Seattle Opera’s Il trovatore runs now through Jan. 26 at McCaw Hall.