Opera News Online: Review of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

ATLANTA Atlanta Opera 5/8/22

IN MAY, Atlanta Opera offered The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell (seen May 8). The opera had its world premiere in Santa Fe in 2017 and won the Grammy for best opera recording the following year. It’s a work riddled with themes of contradiction; an intellectual giant who practiced Zen Buddhism, Steve Jobs nevertheless struggled mightily to incorporate themes of calm and enlightenment into his own life. Bates’s score similarly marries two contrasting soundscapes—the lushness of a symphony orchestra and the pulsating vibe of electronic music—to convey a string of non-chronological memories experienced by Steve Jobs while meditating. The Atlanta Opera production, designed by Jacob A. Climer, was directed by AO general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun.

Climer’s sterile set consists of a multilevel stage and a metal staircase, dotted with over 20 screens arranged in a grid. Images of apple orchards, neon green nature scenes, and wedding photos come and go. At times the screens display pegboard and tools, representing the garage that Jobs and Steve Wozniak inhabited as they were building the first Macintosh computer. At other moments, they flash with recognizable images of time gone by, alternating with a static, stagnant void. Lighting designer Robert Wierzel kept the lighting cool and backlit visual details—the clutter of keyboards and cardboard boxes or orchestra instruments suspended from the rafters.

Starring baritone John Moore, who previously performed the role of Jobs in Seattle, and conducted by Michael Christie, the show was unarguably one of the tightest productions the Atlanta Opera has mounted in the last decade. Like planets revolving around the sun, Moore’s co-stars each came with a distinctive sound element that complemented Moore’s forceful vocal charisma and carefully curated mannerisms. As Steve Wozniak, Bille Bruley showed off a voice teeming with metallic luxury. Coloratura Elizabeth Sutphen sang Jobs’ discarded lover Chrisann Brennan, her spiraling vocal lines ebullient. Statuesque mezzo-soprano Sarah Larsen played the role of Laurene Jobs, her august voice exceedingly beautiful. But it was bass Adam Lau who mesmerized as Kōbun Chino Otogawa, Zen priest and Jobs’ spiritual mentor. Lau’s languid vocalism enveloped our senses. 

Bates’s eclectic score is a tapestry of rhythmic ticking and pops alongside amplified instrumental solos for guitar, piano and flute, woven together in a style impossible to categorize. There are hints of minimalism, flickers of cinematic orchestration reminiscent of André Previn and Asian accents accomplished by pentatonicism. The incorporation of these elements within opera is nothing new; Giacomo Puccini created soundscapes within Tosca using bells and shepherd songs and explored exoticism within his Turandot. But Bates fluidly represents the reverberations of technology and exoticism within a 400-year-old genre, while at the same time writing intuitively for the classical voice. This is not a music theatre piece, nor is it a patchwork of disparate elements; The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is a bona fide opera with an elegant libretto by Campbell.

In opera we are used to sorting out heroes and villains, truth and deception, love and hate. Yet, within this opera it’s clear that both can be true and we must come to terms with such contradiction. —Stephanie Adrian 

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