Like a lot of people who helped define our culture, Steve Jobs was revered and reviled. He had a relentless pursuit of the supremacy of his idea of aesthetic perfection. And the simplified, sleekness of Apple products (an idiot-proof lovechild of Bauhaus and Zen) are iconic, and inescapable now. It is apt that they should so dominate the stage at The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the 2017 opera making its west coast premiere at Seattle Opera tonight.
This is not to say that the music doesn’t hold its own. Composer Mason Bates is worthy of the Contemporary Classical Grammy nomination he received. Bates balances a great range of instruments and modes, both electronic and acoustic. The driving, electric syncopation in the through-composed transitions make it all feel totally natural. Though I personally might have found the guitar a touch cloying at points, I recognize the talent required to conjure the baroque within one scene and a touch of flamenco in another.
Siri, Take Me Through Time
This task is demanded by a libretto that hops achronologically through key points in Jobs’ life. Lyrically, the strongest writing is in the first half. The big opening number (I’m not counting the prologue, a quiet, brief childhood flashback) is a brilliant introduction to the character of the adult Jobs, the anti-hero, and the omnipresent “pocket computer” (the iPhone, his opera magnum). The mini-monolith doesn’t feature as a plot point beyond this scene, but its presence is always felt because the set itself is composed of six moving screens, scaled like giant iPhones.
The construction of these screens is quite ingenious. They glide smoothly, guided by hand by a pair of chorus members. They can both receive projections from the stage and also from within the boxes themselves. Seattle Opera has been relying heavily on projections in its productions in recent years—too heavily. The results have ranged from godawful (Nabucco) to unintentionally absurd (Turn of the Screw) to pretty good (Katya Kabanova). In The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, they are necessary, and the designers rose to the occasion.
For instance, in that opening number, the projections ape the look and feel of Apple adverts and interfaces, and take what is already lowkey sinister about those and crank it up just a notch. It’s a spectacle for sure. Later, in a dulcet love scene in an apple orchard, the trees warp and turn into a blend of pixelated glitch and circuitry when the drugs kick in. (“Purple Dot special,” if I recall correctly.)
In the more frequent office scenes, the screens emit exactly the antiseptic cold-white light of an iPhone. In the Zen centers and calligraphy classes where Jobs indulged his Buddhist inklings (he was Buddhish), they emit a yellowed glow through shoji paper. This is where we also see most of Kobun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’ friend and spiritual mentor. Otogawa is a convenient way to inject the libretto with an assortment of sage counterpoint to Jobs’. For instance, he takes the monomaniac to task for twisting the Zen concept of “simplicity” (Kansou 簡素) to mean singular selfishness. Axiomatic burns like this feel earned, but not everything does.
They’re here for you, Steve
Jobs is on stage, singing and raving in every scene, replaying his life but not much reflecting on it, except in those brief interludes with Otogawa. Naturally, the other characters end up coming across as mere accessories, voices of conscience that Jobs bitterly reproves. This makes sense when the character is pretty much a study in ego—genius without conscience, neglecting others to advance itself until it has become what it ostensibly hated…or perhaps only envied. In the words of the Steve Wozniak on stage, Jobs becomes “a corporate behemoth, a Goliath.”
Otogawa gets to be the most fully fleshed counterpart to Jobs, selfless and incisive and calm, rather than selfish and cruel and frantic. Bates’ use of prayer bowls and other resonant instruments sounds cringe-inducing on paper (the whole character might, despite being based on a real person), but it actually works. Not only that, but the literal resonance of the sound-world surrounding Otogawa imparts his advice with a gravity lacking elsewhere.
Laurene Powell Jobs, in the role of muse and savior, gets the worst of it. Late in the opera, she implores her ailing, workaholic hubby to take care of himself, and the libretto tortures the human/machine dichotomy half to death. It’s cliche, but the real problem is that it doesn’t feel all that cohesive with the story we see. The pacing (and lack of linearity) emphasizes Jobs’ ambition, certainly, but the physical peril is never really felt. Mostly, he’s just an uncaring hypocrite, messy inside and out, even if his apartment is so “decluttered” that even Kondo Marie would raise an eyebrow.
Opera devotees won’t need to be reminded by Laurene that we are messy carbon-based creatures, more complex and lovely and troubled than any silicon-based creation. (And neither does her husband, really, even in the calculating caricature presented on stage.) The humanities revel in…well, humanity, in all its grime and bumbling. Opera is full of deeply flawed, archetypal figures…hence the comedy and tragedy. Their thin plots generally focus on a relatively small window of time and dive into the timeless emotions within it, but The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs tackles a full life in 90 minutes and stays (like its subject) in the intellect. It is rather inevitable that the characters are more caricature than archetype.
Seattle is Right for (R)evolution, Though
But Seattle is a tech town and has been for some time. (It’s the backyard of “Big M,” the otherwise unnamed nemesis of Jobs himself in the libretto, and in life.) Some may hear Laurene’s big number and take something to heart from it. There is no question that our culture has taken the notion of improvement to pathological ends: optimization to match the machine age, a perfection of form and function. The sentiment isn’t misguided, so even though the delivery is sloppy, it may still be effective.
That’s more than I can say for the finale, which includes the most unearned schlock sentiment of all. Poor Laurene has the dubious honor of being the one to deliver it again.
Jobs is observing his own funeral, and Laurene is singing about him in the third person. She tells the mourners and the audiences that Jobs would want us to look up from our screens. “Buy me, consumers! But don’t let me consume you!” to paraphrase. How…generous?
Number one, playing it both ways with this sort of statement is skin-crawlingly disingenuous (rather like an Apple advert).
Two…would he say that? Would Jobs really care if the anonymous user, addicted to devices he made explicitly to do it all…would he care if they unhooked themselves? Absolutely nothing in the opera indicates that, and this need to redeem the character (or caricature) through the words of another feels especially tacked on. More likely, the Jobs of (R)evolution would feel justified in his creation, in its power as an instrument of connection and play. And I won’t debate whether he is justified in that. That is simply in keeping with the character one has just watched return to this idea, over and over for 90 minutes.
This notion of circularity is introduced early on, with the clever use of the enso (the circle, in Japanese calligraphic practice) as a stand-in for the Apple logo. It ties the opera together nicely, too—or would, if librettist Mark Campbell hadn’t tried to cram in a come-to-Buddha postmortem. We end up back in the garage where it all began, with young Jobs and father Paul, Laurene and adult Jobs all in the same placeless place and timeless time. That would have been enough.
As for me, I still gave my applause as the lights fell, to the point I felt sufficient, but while the cast was still taking their bows, I gave the best homage I could to Jobs.
I turned on my iPhone and looked at the screen.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays at Seattle Opera February 22 through March 9. Read more and get tickets online.
Featured image © Philip Newton.