The arc of the life of Steve Jobs is pretty well-known in the popular culture, and has been detailed in a number of films and books. Herald of the personal computer era and the co-founder of Apple Computer, Jobs was a college dropout that started as a video game designer but soon went into business with his longtime friend Steve Wozniak. They designed a new personal computer that was an immediate success. Subsequent issues, though, led to his firing from Apple. Other ventures, including the building of Pixar into a major animation studio, led to Jobs’s return to Apple and the creation of the iMac, iTunes, iPod, and, of course, the iPhone. But he contracted cancer, and died in 2011 at age 56. Jobs was a complicated person and led a complicated life, one possibly ripe for operatic treatment.
Enter Mason Bates, a rare combination of acclaimed classical composer and dance music DJ, as well as the most-performed composer of his generation in a recent survey of American music. Born in 1977, Bates won a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2008, was the first composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and was Musical America Composer of the Year for 2018. A large part of that latter award was likely due to the acclaim won by his first opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which was premiered in 2017 by the Santa Fe Opera and was a huge hit, selling out multiple performances. The recording of the opera on Pentatone Records won the 2019 Grammy for Best Opera Recording.
When Bates initially had the idea for the opera, he sought out librettist Mark Campbell, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012 for his libretto for the Kevin Puts World War I opera Silent Night. Campbell found out all he could about Jobs and Apple, and picked out a set of key themes and incidents that could be structured in operatic form. As to the main characters, as Bates has written, “Mark soon fell in love with the complex, duel protagonist-and-antagonist role of Jobs; the soulful figure of Laurene Jobs; and the mystical character of Kōbun, the Buddhist spiritual adviser to Jobs.”
In the opera, Bates and Campbell give, in one assessment, an “intimate perspective of a public life, examining the people and experiences that shaped Steve Jobs: his father, his Buddhist practice, his rise and fall as an executive, and finally his marriage to the woman who showed him the power of human connection.” But the events of Jobs’s life that the opera focuses on – Jobs’s youth in the 1960s, his initial work with Steve Wozniak and the founding of Apple in the 1970s, his discovery of Buddhism, the ups and downs of the 1980s, his marriage and professional comeback, the launch of the iPhone, and his death in 2011 – are arranged in an unusual, non-linear way, jumping back and forth in time. The twenty-four episodes – a prologue, eighteen scenes, four instrumental interludes, and an epilogue – form a single act in what Bates has called a “‘pixelated’ structure” that allows the events and characters to interact and comment on one another.
Bates’s music features his usual blend of the acoustic and the electronic. Each of the characters has her or his characteristic sound. An acoustic guitar, for instance, is associated with Jobs throughout the opera, often with electronic sounds in the background that help depict his busy, fragmented life – sounds that Bates in large part derived from Mac products, little electronic noises from hard drives and keyboards. Later, by contrast, the appearances of Kōbun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’s spiritual adviser and the person that helped him to convert to Buddhism, are accompanied by calm music, including alto flute and electronically-processed Japanese wind chimes, prayer bowls, and gongs. Jobs’s wife Laurene is accompanied by soaring strings and consonant harmonies – she, after all, is the reconciling force in the opera between Jobs’s multiple facets, positive and negative. Jobs’s girlfriend Chrisann Brennan tends to be accompanied by flutes, and his partner and friend Steve Wozniak by saxophones.
The following listening guide for the opera is based on the aforementioned recording of the opera on Pentatone Records, which features Edward Parks (baritone, Steve Jobs), Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano, Laurene Powell Jobs), Wei Wu (bass, Kōbun Chino Otogawa), Garrett Sorenson (tenor, Steve “Woz” Wozniak), Jessica E. Jones (soprano, Chrisann Brennan), Kelly Markgraf (baritone, Paul Jobs), Mariya Kaganskaya (mezzo-soprano, Teacher), and the Santa Fe Opera Orchestra conducted by Michael Christie. The entire recording can be found on YouTube; selected highlights are included below.
1965: The garage of the Jobs family home, Los Altos
We hear the musical sounds associated with Steve Jobs (“Steve” from hereon), acoustic guitar and electronic noises, in this initial scene, in which Steve receives his father Paul’s encouragement along with the present of a workbench. Immediately noticeable is the accessible, melodic nature of the vocal writing.
A minimalist, rhythmically lively transition as the stage changes.
2007: Product Launch, the stage of a convention center, San Francisco
Steve is at the famous 2007 convention at which he announced the iPhone, extolling his “one device” that “does it all,” with a mere “tap” taking care of so many of one’s needs. There’s lively syncopation and building energy in the music as the chorus/audience expresses its excitement, as well as some skepticism. As Steve’s energy flags – a hint of his health problems to follow – the music calms for his exchange with his wife Laurene.
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