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In Reinterpreting Steve Jobs Folklore, an Opera Disrupts Its Form

Silicon Valley’s favorite iconoclast is getting his own, appropriately high-tech musical

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Of all the modern leaders who have captivated the world, few have been as rabidly picked apart as Steve Jobs. The iconic cofounder of Apple has been the subject of biographies, including an authorized 656-page tome and a baby mama’s tell all. His influential life has been dissected by lauded documentarians like Alex Gibney, but also by masses of internet users who kind of know how to use iMovie. He’s been portrayed in feature films of varying quality by Ashton Kutcher, Justin Long, and Michael Fassbender. Everyone knows something about Steve Jobs. There have been so many tellings and retellings of his life that his story is a modern-day Aesop’s fable for the smartphone generation.

For Mason Bates, the omnipresence of Jobs’s story was a motivation, not a deterrent. On Saturday in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the 40-year-old composer will premiere The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, an opera that tells the story of the man who revolutionized computing. The much-hyped production has been two years in the making, and it features an energetic libretto by Pulitzer Prize winner Mark Campbell. After its stint in New Mexico, it’ll head to San Francisco and Seattle. While to some opera might seem too antiquated a genre for a story about tech’s favorite iconoclast, it’s capable of the grandiosity that’d be perfect for a Silicon Valley subplot about a musical celebration of capitalism. And to Bates, the mythic nature of Jobs’s story is perfect for a musical stage.

“Sometimes a representational medium like television or movies can’t really get at the essence of something precisely because it’s so literal,” Bates said a few months ago, around the same time he was making the final touches to what he referred to as the production’s “sound world.” “Opera can handle communication unlike any other, because we can have the different interior thoughts of people happening simultaneously by having their music played at different parts of the stage. We can hear their two musics collide or mix almost like two records on a DJ turntable. The story of Steve Jobs, as strange as it may seem, fits beautifully into the operatic medium.”

(Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017)
(Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017)

Thematic compatibility aside, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is centered on new, enchanting technology. Jobs’s ability to transform personal technology challenged Bates and his collaborators to upgrade many traditional elements of opera — like its music, narrative, and set — to better fit with the subject matter. “The opportunity is that you can be more wild in your storytelling,” Bates said. “You can be more imaginative.” Or as the production’s set designer, Vita Tzykun, said: “This was the most technologically advanced opera I’ve ever designed.”

Musically, Bates has some experience in making old things new again. He’s made a name for himself in the classical music world for nestling his own ambient electronic percussions into string-based orchestras. His 2011 piece “Alternative Energy” details the powerful forces of machinery throughout history and uses a recording from the particle collider housed at the national particle physics research facility Fermilab. “Liquid Interface,” which premiered in 2007 as a commissioned work by the National Symphony Orchestra, depicts different forms of water and incorporates audio snippets of glaciers breaking in the Antarctic. (He also moonlights as a Bay Area–based DJ, and has a deep love for electronic music.)

For The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Bates began by assigning leitmotifs — individual melodies — to each of the characters. After several months of research, he assigned Jobs a guitar melody based in the frenetic fingerpicking style frequently heard in ’70s and ’80s folk music that the entrepreneur was fond of. He also began ordering old pieces of Apple electronics online to get a feel for the early signature melodies of the brand. After combining the two, he forged a soundtrack for his main character that aims to match Jobs’s energetic, uncontrollable mind.

(Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017)
(Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017)

“I thought, ‘Maybe the world of Steve Jobs is this folk-electronic hybrid that is always busy, just like his inner soul was busy,’” Bates said.

Campbell’s libretto will follow an unconventional story arc. The text of the performance is laid out as a “pixelated narrative,” or a nonchronological telling that jumps from a moment in Jobs’s childhood to the iPhone keynote to that famous calligraphy class at Reed College. Campbell fixated on both influential figures like Jobs’s Buddhist spiritual adviser Kobun Chino Otogawa and inherently musical moments in the entrepreneur’s life — like the time he took LSD and heard Bach.

The Silicon Valley setting also played a major role in Campbell’s writing. He incorporates the idiosyncrasies of 1980s California vernacular into characters’ lines, so that their sentences are peppered with words like “totally” and “like.” The narrative is also weaved together by the reflective, long walks that Jobs would sometimes take around the hills of Los Altos.

“There’s a scene, early on in the opera, where [Jobs] looks up at the sun and says: ‘Ah, that’s the sunset of my youth,’” Campbell said. “At Santa Fe Opera, it’s an outdoor theater, and we have the ability of opening up the back wall and revealing the sunset at this particular moment. I think people will think of the Santa Fe sunset and think: ‘That’s what California looks like, too.’”

Campbell’s libretto is complemented by a dynamic, high-tech set, which was designed to reflect the same obsessively minimalist aesthetic that Jobs was known for. The opera’s opening scene transforms from Jobs’s childhood garage to the iPhone keynote, a change enabled by six, 12-foot-high screens that, according to scenic designer Tzykun, are “jam-packed” with remotely controlled OLEDs implanted with infrared sensors. This allows the crew’s computer systems to track the screens’ location onstage in real time and project video and light from them as they move.

“I understood very quickly that the environment that I had to create for these characters to exist in had to shift constantly,” Tzykun said. “It has to be extremely minimal, just like Steve Jobs’s aesthetic, extremely flexible, so that it can have endless configurations, and it has to deliver a sense of wonder just like all of Steve Jobs’s devices do.”

Tzykun also coordinated with lighting professionals to line the stage with ribbons of programmable lights called “neon flex” that change colors, animate, and pulsate according to the beat of the music. This effect is used to reflect Jobs’s inner thoughts at his most creative moments.

“My whole visual design is trying to help us get inside Steve’s emotions in his head, and we do that through lighting and video and movement of light,” Tzykun said.

Though Tzykun has never worked on an opera set so technically involved, she sees Bates’s production as its own revolutionary product — one that could quite possibly draw new generations of viewers to an art that many find inaccessible.

“We have to remember that when Mozart was writing his operas, they were modern and relevant to those people who lived during his time,” Tzykun said. “Opera is one of the richest art forms there is, and it unfortunately suffers from a misconception from a younger generation because all they can think about is people trotting around the stage and shouting at them. The more new operas that can be written by young people who feel the heartbeat of the audience today, the more chance there is for this beautiful, amazing artform to survive.”

Come Saturday, Bates and Campbell’s production could do for opera what Jobs did for technology: Make a misunderstood thing fun and new.