Wednesday, 23 August 2017
Reviews

Review: Steve Jobs of Apple, Tech Visionary, Has Glitches as an Opera


Written in a single, 20-scene act, Mr. Campbell’s libretto — in which Apple, which didn’t authorize the opera, is never mentioned by name — suggests that the unpleasant shift in his character was a result of Jobs’s desire to “control all those mad and messy moments” of his life. He’s forgotten, in other words, the Zen Buddhist teachings he embraced as a young man.

Once he remembers, spurred by his spiritual adviser, Kobun Chino Otogawa, and his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, he embraces change, connection, death — the whole mess. At the end of the opera, Laurene proposes, amusingly if preposterously, that this beneficent “Version 2.0 of Steve” would say of his beloved phones, “Please buy them, but don’t spend your life on them.” The opera is fatally caught between its desires to diligently check off biographical boxes and to shape that biography, contrary to fact, into the happy-ending shape of a meet-cute romance.

For this Silicon Valley story, Mr. Bates’s tech-friendly music must have seemed the perfect fit. Over the past decade, he has earned prestigious appointments — residencies at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a close association with the San Francisco Symphony — on the strength of blandly affable forced marriages of rave-style electronic beats and Bernstein-style orchestral lushness. On occasion he even spins records as, sigh, D.J. Masonic.

There’s a hint of the score he might have made at the very start of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs”: a mysterious, ominous passage of clicks, beeps and sighs, an electronic world yearning to become flesh and blood.

But Mr. Bates soon begins to rely on alternating modes of dogged propulsion and layer-cake grandiosity. As Jobs doubles over with illness after a product launch, the music, conducted by Michael Christie, grinds to a halt — relying, in a bizarrely clichéd move, on a sound evoking the stock effect of an alien spaceship powering down its engines. Mr. Bates more or less has a single way of handling the climaxes of interpersonal confrontations: big, thwacking chords, separated by yawning silences. Interludes between many of the scenes often feel pointless, their dramatic function vague — Jobs wanders around, looking confused — and their musical content mostly vamping.

The vocal writing is emphatic lyricism, aimed squarely at the back row. When the score does relax, it’s usually in the scenes between Jobs and Kobun (the friendly, mellow-toned bass Wei Wu), his wisecracking mentor. Their interactions have a welcome quiet intimacy, if also a wan mood of Japanese pastiche — coppery prayer bowls and touches of gong — that Mr. Bates has tried before in works like “Mothership” (2011).

The director Kevin Newbury has created something of a miniature version of the Metropolitan Opera’s 2013 staging of Nico Muhly’s “Two Boys,” which also depended on video projected onto a colony of shifting, stubby towers. The “(R)evolution” production is stranded, as “Two Boys” was, between stylized fantasy and stodgy realism. (Do we really need all those Reed College seals in a brief scene set there?) There’s little here of the stylish simplicity that was Jobs’s trademark.

Watch Michael Fassbender’s tightly coiled performance in the title role of the Boyle film for evidence of the man that an Apple executive once described as “a boxer, aggressive and elusively graceful, or like an elegant jungle cat ready to spring at its prey.” There’s nothing graceful or seductive about the opera’s blustery, earnest Jobs (here the underpowered, ineffectual baritone Edward Parks): You can’t imagine this guy ever making anyone do anything.

As always, the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a beating heart onstage, a warm and sympathetic presence as Laurene. And as always, the Santa Fe Opera’s chorus, led since 2008 by Susanne Sheston, is superb as a changeable array of employees, journalists and Buddhist adherents.

Mr. Campbell writes in a program note that Charles MacKay, Santa Fe Opera’s general director, had just one instruction: “Make sure the audience thinks twice before they reach for their phones after the performance.” It’s a sign of the opera’s failure, then, that after the final orchestral swell I took my battered iPhone 6 out of my pocket without much thought at all — living very much in the world Jobs created but already forgetting this limp telling of his story.

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