Monday, January 28, 2019

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