Sunday, July 16, 2017

Steve Jobs, the Man, and Steve Jobs, the Opera

There's been some discussion about The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the opera, on Twitter over the last couple of days, and about larger issues raised by the work. I was involved in the Twitter exchanges, and so were a bunch of folks I know.

I have to start this blog post with what would be disclaimers in a paid review, but they're not really that in a blog post. First, I work for one of Apple's competitors, Google. Second, I do not in any way speak for Google. Third, I've been a technical writer for 21 years, and anybody who works in high tech has opinions about both Apple and Steve. When I was looking around for a paid review of this piece, I gave some thought to whether these were disqualifying, without exactly reaching any conclusions. Let's just say, for now, that I'm semi-well-informed about Jobs and Apple. I have not seen the competing films about him that came out a while back, one of which was partially filmed at the War Memorial Opera House. I have not read Walter Isaacson's giant biography, which was written with at least some cooperation from Jobs.

I have heard several of Mason Bates's pieces live, going back to "Rusty Air in Carolina" at Cabrillo more than ten years ago. He's a good composer, although I find it odd that with all the publicity about ELECTRONICA in his music, usually you can barely hear the electronic contributions in the wash of his orchestration. I do not have quite as high an opinion of him as some critics do, and I scratched my head over the Beethoven & Bates pairing at San Francisco Symphony a few years ago.

So, about Jobs. He was not the greatest innovator of all time. Many or most of Apple's major technologies were invented elsewhere. Douglas Engelbart invented the mouse. Xerox PARC invented the graphical user interface. Sony invented the portable music player. Blackberry and Palm invented the smartphone, although I own that you could see the smartphone as an extension of the Newton, Apple's early, failed attempt at a PDA. I also note that Andy Rubin founded Android in 2003, four years before Apple released the iPhone.

Jobs was a brilliant marketer and a genius at recognizing and promoting great design, at least after a certain point. Those early Macs were pretty damn ugly, and the GUI was primitive compared to what you see now on just about any personal computer. By always charging premium prices and never licensing their operating system, Apple missed a chance in the 80s to make major inroads into corporate American, instead remaining the expensive boutique computer. But over time, Jobs began to demand, and get, extraordinary design for Apple products. Even the original iPod is rather a miracle of compact design, and the whole lineup of them got prettier and prettier. The current Mac laptops all look and feel great, and so does the iMac I'm writing this on.

One result of this is an extremely loyal fan base, people who will line up for the latest phone or computer coming out of Cupertino. I don't, personally, understand the near-cult around Apple products, but then, I am a value buyer who doesn't want to pay top dollar for products such as cars or computers. That's why I'm driving a 2000 Accord, the fanciest car I've ever wanted. Hey, it will probably run for another five years! That's why I kept my last Windows computer, a Dell, going for nine years. I did replace it with an iMac, but that was for two reasons: by then, I'd switched to a Mac at work, and OS X looked and felt more like Windows XP than then-current versions of Windows did.

Sorry, I know that this probably sounds like a huge insult to a lot of Apple users invested in telling me how the Mac is soooo much more intuitive than Windows. As someone who used both for several years, all I can says is, no, it is not. And I can ask, when did YOU last use a Windows machine? The two OSs have been functionally equivalent for a very long time. It takes a few days to learn keystroke differences, and some time to get used to working with the bells and whistles, but the fact is that I've never used all the bells and whistles on either a Windows machine or a Mac.

Let's say a bit about Steve Jobs, the man. From all reports, he was something of an asshole! The stories are legion! His treatment of his oldest daughter and her mother; his treatment of many Apple employees; the ways that Apple's extremely secretive internal culture reflected his personality and drive. There are plenty of articles about this and of course the bio.

So the thought of an opera about Steve Jobs automatically makes me a look a little side-eyed at the idea. The cast list didn't help: there are two women in it, his wife Laurene Powell Jobs and Chrisann Brennan, his daughter Lisa's mother. There's also Kobun Chino Otogawa, the Zen monk who married Laurene and Steve Jobs.

It is very hard to look at this cast list and not wonder, or worry, if we're going to get an opera about an asshole saved by the love of a good woman and the counsel of a good (Asian) religious figure. (For the Asian religious figure, let's just that my worry is that the opera might be getting into "magic Negro" territory, which would be bad.) We have seen this story before, or some version of it, in an awful lot of media: films, novels, plays, and I think a few operas too. In this case, it would be a rich, white-presenting asshole being saved by the love, etc. Contra Matthew Shilvock's statement - and yes, I know that as general director of SF Opera he has to say this stuff - this sure doesn't look like an opera for or about everybody. It looks like an opera for Apple / Jobs fans.

I have not, of course, seen the libretto. I don't know whether, or how it will address the influence of Jobs's personality on Apple or his poor treatment of many people in his life and at Apple. I am not a big fan of redemption stories, if that's what this turns out to be.

But my concerns here go way beyond "telling composers what operas to write," because Steve Jobs isn't a fictional character invented for this opera (although, I admit, Richard Nixon in you-know-what is at least partly a fictional character invented for the opera). His actions and life had real impact on the world and the people around him, from family members to employees of Apple. It's reasonable to be concerned or wonder about how the opera is going to address all this stuff.

And I think it's okay to make the general statement that it would really good, and good for opera, if composers created more operas about women who aren't either victims or saviors, more operas with people of color in general, broader concerns; if there were more operas written by women and people of color. If you need only one example of why, compare and contrast the treatment of rape in Marco Tutino's La Ciociara and in Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater.

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