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