Steve Jobs would probably hate all the biopics that have snowballed since his 2011 death. However, the public just can’t seem to get enough of the troubled genius, especially at the Crosby Theatre.
Santa Fe Opera presented composer Mason Bates’ and librettist Mark Campbell’s “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” to yet another sold out crowd on Aug. 10, 2017. Though the show itself has some kinks to work out before it heads to Seattle and San Francisco, there is something to be said about the audience’s overwhelmingly positive reception. And it isn’t just New Mexico residents who are rushing to buy tickets ― the show has garnered so much attention from critics and operaphiles from around the country that an extra performance was added on Aug. 22, 2017.
The Jobs’ estate and Apple Inc., however, feel differently about the piece. As stated in the program notes, both have no ties with the opera and seem to have no plans in getting involved anytime soon. None of Jobs’ miraculous inventions are mentioned by name, nor is Apple even stated in the context of the company. Instead, they are glossed over ambiguously ― the iPhone is referred to as “one device” that does it all. In turn, none of Apple’s official logos are used. However, the piece isn’t about overt product placement. As indicated with the parenthesis in the title, the focus is more so on Jobs’ personal growth throughout his career. Though intermixed with his legendary accomplishments, the “(R)evolution” sets out to paint Jobs as human ― something Jobs himself had trouble coming to terms with. He was notorious for his impossible standards, such as overworking his staff and patronizing those close to him, though he strived to channel his inner peace through Buddhist practices, eventually seeking the help of Zen priest Kōbun Chino Otogawa (here portrayed by bass Wei Wu). His demons were further calmed by his girlfriend and later wife Laurene (American mezzo Sasha Cooke), who seems able to cool his temperament better than anyone else.
Directed by Kevin Newbury, “(R)evolution” is told in 18 nonlinear scenes that jump through his life, from childhood to the invention of the iPhone, and back in time to his college years, all the way up to his death. The piece ends with his memorial service with an uplifting message to the audience, in which Laurene urges them to look up from their devices to appreciate the beauty of life around them. “‘Please buy them,’ he’d say, ‘but don’t live your life on them,’” Laurene says. At times, this type of wording seemed contrived and borderline hokey. However, if not interpreted as corny, one could say the optimism is inspiring.
Musically, the score takes inspiration from a myriad of genres, including electronic, Eastern, and contemporary folk music. Each character seems to have a different genre reserved for them: Laurene is supported by acoustic strings. Kōbun’s accompaniment takes clear nods at Eastern themes. At the podium, conductor Michael Christie was phenomenal at multitasking the cornucopia of musical elements, such as in Scene 2 when Jobs eagerly unveils the iPhone. Unfortunately, each singer was mic’d to compensate for the loud electronic elements of the show. Though understandable given the circumstances, it is never ideal to ‘mic’ opera singers. Much of their overtones were lost in the amplification and did not provide an accurate measure to each singers’ natural abilities.
Nevertheless, the amplification was not enough to completely damage the stellar singing. As the titular character, Edward Parks carries the show, appearing in every scene without break. Parks’ voice is sizable, even without amplification. His interpretation of the tortured prodigy is multifaceted ― in every scene, a different side to Jobs is revealed. At times, he’s high strung and demands the impossible from his employees from the company’s Cupertino headquarters. Campbell and Bates depict him not so much as a bully but passionate. Yet his sensitivity is only revealed around Laurene, in which we see him at his most human.
Sasha Cooke made one hell of a house debut as Laurene. Her sultry, contralto-like timbre is a good fit for the character’s cool, confident demeanor. In Scene 9, when Laurene and Jobs meet for the first time at his lecture at Stanford University, it is Laurene who makes the first advance, slyly asking herself to dinner. Later on, it is Laurene who urges Jobs to prioritize his health over his work. Like Laurene, holding Jobs’ hand throughout life, Cooke was the standout as the show’s heart and soul.
Some of the best singing of the evening came from American tenor Garrett Sorenson as Steve Wozniak, billed sentimentally as “Woz.” Sorenson’s show-stopping moment came in Scene 13, in which he quits the company in a passionate rage. Up until this point, the character is seen rather aloof, providing comic relief to the rather intense show. Slowly, Woz starts to feel the effects of Jobs’ dictator-like standards, and eventually, the lid blows off the pot. His scene-stealing arioso showcased Sorenson’s gleaming high notes and Hollywood acting chops. As Kōbun, Wei Wu was another source of lightheartedness in the show, displaying collected wisdom and a strong vocal color as the Zen priest.
Those who were only featured in a handful of scenes made strong impressions during their brief stage time. Apprentice Artist Jessica E. Jones, as Jobs’ first flame and later the mother to his first child, Lisa, displayed vocal beauty beyond her years. The raw emotion she drew as she confronts Jobs over his lack of responsibility for their child was both moving and breathtaking. Mariya Kaganskaya, another Apprentice, showcased her luscious tone as a Teacher lecturing on the importance of the ensō during Jobs’ brief stint at the Reed College. As Paul Jobs, Steve’s father, baritone Kelly Markgraf exhibited paternal tenderness to his young son in the Prologue.
“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” closes on Aug. 25. Additional performances remain on Aug. 15 and 22.