Friday, July 28, 2017

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Santa Fe Opera

iPhone announcement
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and the Santa Fe Opera Chorus
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

I was at the second performance of the new opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, music by Mason Bates, libretto by Mark Campbell. As readers of this blog and my Twitter feed are aware, I had  reservations about the subject going into the premiere, which came on top of being less of a Mason Bates fan than many. I have also seen two operas with Campbell librettos, which contributed somewhat to my skepticism; more about this below.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

So, the good news about the opera: the production is really terrific, using a bunch of rectangular structures on wheels to divide up the stage in many ways and, with beautiful and imaginative projections, represent various outdoor locations, Apple´s offices, a garage, Jobs´s childhood home, etc.  See the photo above for the structures in a fairly pure form. Initially, they were brightly lit and resembled the outside of an Apple store.

The lighting is gorgeous. The singers are amplified, which I did not know in advance, but it was obvious from the first vocal entry. It´s done well enough, though there was one two minute period when I had some problems hearing soprano Jessica E. Jones. It was certainly necessary for making the guitar in the orchestra audible with what sounded like a pretty big orchestra in the pit. Whether it was necessary for the singers, I am doubtful, but it is not the only thing about the opera that was School of John (Coolidge) Adams.

The performers are unimpeachable, which did not surprise me at all. I believe I have never heard baritone Edward Parks before; he sings the role of Jobs and as far as I can remember, he is on stage for the entire opera. He was absolutely tireless and sang and acted very well. He's got a serviceable voice, not a remarkable voice, but that is sufficient.

Garrett Sorenson (Woz) and Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

All of the other roles are subsidiary to that of Jobs, and because I have not seen the libretto (yet), I am not sure what the line division among the other roles is. I think it´s likely that the second-largest role is that of Steve Wozniak (Woz), friend of Jobs from their teen years, co-founder of Apple, and designer of large parts of early Apple hardware. This role was sung by tenor Garrett Sorenson, and he was just about perfect vocally and dramatically. He is the emotional foil of Jobs within Apple, the nice guy to Jobs´s asshole. I have seen him before, but I had to look it up: he was Narraboth in San Francisco´s last Salome.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Sasha Cooke, taking the role of Laurene Powell Jobs, got very high billing in the cast, and she is as always wonderful, but oh man! The part is seriously underwritten. The same is true of the role of Chrisann Brennan, Jobs´s girlfriend and the mother of his first daughter Lisa, sung by Jessica E. Jones More, lots more, about this below.

That is not a set or a projection in the background; that is the landscape behind the opera house.
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Wei Wu (Kobun Chino Otogaway)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

The bass Wu Wei was impressive as Kubun Chino Otogawa, spiritual mentor to Jobs over a long period of time. He's got a splendid voice and I'd love to see him in a standard role or two. More on this part below as well.

And some more good news: for this opera, Bates has composed a score that is consistently lively and inventive, with considerable charm as well. The publicity all says that this opera was his idea, and it has inspired him to write some terrific music, music that I liked better than just about anything I have heard from him in the past. The vocal lines are mostly well-written and by and large he sets the sometimes-awkward text very well. The orchestra burbles along with a fascinating assortment of sounds, some of them based on sound effects from the Macintosh computer line. There´s a guitar in the mix (obviously amplified); the orchestra is imaginative and often very beautiful. Was that a duet for alto flutes I heard at one point (possibly two)? I can´t say, because I haven´t located the orchestra breakdown yet. There is some beautiful pastoral music when Jobs and Chrisann take an LSD trip; it also registered on me as a loving pastiche of the genre.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Jessica E. Jones (Chrisann Brennan)
Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

There are some minor issues: the extremely high-energy score gets tiring to listen to after maybe 50 minutes to an hour. It could use more repose, more breaks from the relentless energy. I certainly could have done without the disturbing subsonics in one scene.

Rhythmically, it is very school-of-JCA circa the 1980s and early 90s; one of my notes says ¨somebody has been listening to Nixon in China.¨ And, you know, that is a good thing! Nixon is one of the great postwar scores, and composers ought to listen to it, especially composers who are writing an opera about a public individual, because it is the progenitor of every other such opera in the last 30 years.

I would say that the most successful and memorable stretches of music in the opera are the many purely orchestral sections and the two duets between Jobs and Woz. By duets, I mean non-conversational sections where the two men are really singing together and bouncing off one another. And right there, I am starting to get at some of the problems with the opera.

So, the libretto is a big problem, and so is the length of the opera, and of course I have no way of knowing the process by which Steve Jobs became a one-act, 90-minute opera with no fewer than 18 brief scenes. But it is too short for what it is trying to accomplish and it misses a couple of golden opportunities to properly develop the female characters in keeping with the overall plot, which is ostensibly supposed to show not only how Apple and Jobs revolutionized tech, but how Jobs evolved (and presumably improved) as a person.

I have been wondering since the performance whether Steve Jobs was originally a two-act opera that got reduced in size along the way. One reason for this is that at around the 50 minute mark, there is a section that dramatically and musically sounds exactly like the close of a typical first act. The music reaches a huge climax and the libretto sets up some kind of significant dramatic conflict. My notes unfortunately do not say where in the opera this is, so you will have to wait until the CD release (yes, there is one coming) before I can pinpoint its location, unless one of my fellow ink-stained wretches has also commented on this and has more detailed notes than I do.

In any event, the libretto does rather rocket around, geographically and temporally. It shifts from 2007, when Jobs was already sick with the cancer that eventually killed him, back to the 1970s, forward to the 1980s and 90s. Sometimes you are outdoors, sometimes in a home or office. It is very cinematic, and given its length and familiar subject, it is in some way exemplary of the sort of thing Greg Sandow was espousing a decade ago as the future of opera. (Note: I didn´t agree then and I don´t agree now. The success of productions of the Ring and Les Troyens are evidence that operagoers have a long enough attention span that 90 minute operas do not need to become the norm.) The many short scenes encourage a telegraphic survey of the events and they really short-circuit the character development we are supposed to be seeing in Jobs.

We get plenty of scenes of Jobs-the-jerk, in how he treats Chrisann when she becomes pregnant and in his treatment of Apple employees. He is truly horrible to Chrisann, blaming her for the pregnancy and ordering her to get an abortion.¨How can you do this to me?¨he sings, as though it was deliberate and he had nothing to do with it. ¨Get rid of it.¨

Here´s the first big miss in the libretto: it´s the perfect setup to give Chrisann an aria of some combination of regret, longing, shock, confusion, and rage (take your pick; I can imagine any of these). Bates and Campbell duck it, and the next we see her, it´s years later and Chrisann, broke while supporting herself and their daughter, begs Jobs for some financial assistance...which he refuses. (Yes, he is an asshole.)

Here´s the second big miss: Laurene Powell comes along; she and Jobs fall in love and marry; he turns into a better person. But all we get about how and why is that she is someone who kicks his ass when he is a jerk. She is a counterbalance to his worst self.

Well, so? This is not really anything extraordinary! It is not uncommon in long relationships for the partners to call out each other´s bad behavior and ask or demand better. And in the Jobs marriage, this is very briefly conveyed even though there is a hint, at least, that they may have once nearly broken up over his behavior. Missed opportunity: an aria for Laurene about what the relationship felt like to her and what she needed from him.

Also missed: an aria of self-reflection from Jobs himself! There just isn't anything really persuasive, merely a bunch of hints and aphorisms about how he becomes a better person. We need a window into his interior life and we do not get it. Yes, this would take something long, in an opera where the scenes average five minutes in length. I rather suspect it would take an aria the length of ¨Tu che le vanita,¨ which might be Verdi´s longest, and greatest, aria.

All of this really limits the extent to which we can be moved by Jobs´s life and transformation. We see very little about it that is intimate or convincing, and without that, we are entertained but not moved.

Oh, I see you asking, but what about the spiritual mentor? Well, we don´t get much from that direction, either. Some aphorisms, some humor, some really embarrassing moments. Like Chrisann and Laurene, he is more a prop in the story than he is a real person. You could say I am made uncomfortable by this: Woz is the best-developed secondary character, and that is a big problem given that it seems that this is a redemption story in some way, and the redeemers are Laurene and Otogawa. I do own that Woz is well-developed and truly a mensch; he is the guy who behaves well when Jobs does not.

There are some other embarrassing aspects to the libretto: some of those Jobs/Otogawa conversations take place in 2007 and 2009, and Otogawa died in 2005 trying to save his young daughter from drowning. Jobs witnesses his own memorial service and comments on it. This comes across as mawkish sentimentality.

More profoundly, we never see or hear a word about Jobs's kids, beyond Laurene lamenting that they miss him when he's working hard and is never home. We get a one-liner about how he and Laurene "adopted" Lisa, his daughter with Chrisann. She was thirteen years old when Powell and Jobs married, so you really want to know what exactly that throwaway line means. His relationship with her, and perhaps Laurene's, would have been more complex than you can convey in a couple of sentences; in this opera, he spends way more time denying paternity than he does relating to his child.

[Updates follow]

Since I wrote the bulk of this review, I've had a couple more thoughts on potential additions to the opera that could improve it dramatically and emotionally. The first is that although Fitzgerald's famous line about second acts is quoted, the opera skips entirely over Jobs's amazing second and third acts: after he was booted from Apple, for good reasons, he went on to found NeXT Computer, fund Pixar as an independent company, and return to the company to rescue Apple from the hole his successors let it fall into. These are astonishing accomplishments by any standard, but there isn't a word about it. He is just mysteriously back at Apple presenting the iPhone, with no explanation. This is a blank that needs some type of filling in.

I mentioned this to Joshua Kosman the other night before Le Coq d'Or, and he made the persuasive argument that leaving this out means the opera never presents Jobs riding in as the white knight, which would interrupt the story of his personal evolution. True, and yet it's an awfully big part of his legend and revolution.

I referred a couple of times above to Nixon in China and some musical aspects of Steve Jobs that come from that trailblazing and brilliant opera. I've never much liked JCA's reasons for using amplification; to a great extent I think it boils down to his distrust of singers and discomfort with operatic singing style. Other composers need not adopt these views: if singers can be heard over Richard Strauss's enormous orchestras, so can your singers. Trust your singers, ask them questions, work with them about what their strengths and weaknesses are.

One reason Nixon in China is so successful is its amazing libretto, by the poet Alice Goodman. For the libretto, she didn't write lines for Richard Nixon; she invented a character "Richard Nixon" and gave him an inner life and thoughts that are true to Richard Nixon while clearly being her imagined version of the man. Steve Jobs, the character in Steve Jobs the opera, remains opaque and somehow unknown because Mark Campbell takes him literally - except for the embarrassing business with Otogawa and so on - and does not succeed in expressing Jobs's inner life in a way that illuminates the life the man lived.

[End updates]

I mentioned earlier that this is the third opera I've seen with a Campbell libretto. The others also have significant dramatic weaknesses. In the case of Kevin Puts's Silent Night, I must say that I am not familiar with the source material, a film that is evidently popular and moving. I found the opera episodic and dramatically diffuse, and without seeing the film, I can't say whether it was because the libretto too closely recreates the film. (I also did not love the music.) The other opera is Laura Kaminsky's As One, which has gorgeous music and a libretto co-written by Kimberly Reed and partly based on her life. I wrote extensively about As One when West Edge Opera performed it in 2015; I won't repeat those comments here.

I want to note that some of the best parts of the libretto were the funniest, which led me to think that Campbell could write an excellent comic libretto. That led me to wonder why there aren't more operatic comedies being commissioned and composed. People need to laugh as well as cry!

In closing, I think that The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is pretty successful, with attractive, inventive, and entertaining music, an outstanding production, and admirable performances all around. Michael Christie conducted and did a fine, fine job, perhaps excepting one episode that is just too loud (but maybe Bates is to blame for this). I predict that it will sell plenty of tickets in its future runs at San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera, and that is a good thing. I also think it's possible that it will get some revisions in the next few years, and I do think it can be significantly deepened and made more emotionally satisfying. I would want a better sense of what was going on inside Jobs himself, who remains enigmatic to the end.

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