Arts & Culture

Santa Fe Opera boots up a world premiere about the complicated life of Steve Jobs

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs smiles after a press conference as he opens the Apple Expo in Paris in 2005. Since his death in 2011, Jobs has been the subject of documentaries, books, a film, even a graphic novel. Now the technology pioneer is the focus of an opera, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”
Apple co-founder Steve Jobs smiles after a press conference as he opens the Apple Expo in Paris in 2005. Since his death in 2011, Jobs has been the subject of documentaries, books, a film, even a graphic novel. Now the technology pioneer is the focus of an opera, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” AP

Vita Tzykun, a production designer for stage and film who counts Lady Gaga as one of her clients, pulls out her iPhone to show me a video. Thin lines of neon green lights flicker on moving boxes on a stage, prototypes of what will be part of the Santa Fe Opera’s world premiere, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” opening later this month as part of the Santa Fe Opera’s annual summer season.

“The video on the boxes is synched with the music and controlled by a motion sensor that wirelessly connected with our computer system, and the movement of the boxes is synched with the music, too,” she says.

The enormous wheeled structures, 12 feet tall by 6 feet wide, are a key component of the minimalist set design for the opera, which hangs its storyline on a modern-day tragedy and true story. Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc., changed how the world communicates with the creation of computers that were more like humans, yet he struggled with his own humanity and with that of those around him.

“It’s not decorative,” Tzykun says, running a hand through her cropped platinum hair with a black streak in the front. “We’re tying in the design to the storytelling, to dramatically drive and further develop the story. Like an Apple device, [the boxes] are decidedly minimal, but with infinite possibilities. I look at these as pixels of Steve Jobs’ brain, to show his internal life. Sometimes he controls them and sometimes he’s controlled by it.”

Three years in the making, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” is a collaboration between Mason Bates, composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Mason Bates — known for pushing musical boundaries by mixing electronica with classical, and putting on post-classical rave parties with clubs and orchestras around the country where he acts as DJ — and Pulitzer Prize award-winning librettest Mark Campbell (“Silent Night,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “The Shining”).

“It would seem at first blush a surprising subject for an opera, but actually the life of Steve Jobs is thrilling for an opera,” says Bates, speaking on his iPhone while driving along U.S. 285 north on the way to rehearsal at the Santa Fe Opera one recent afternoon. “If you look at his life, it essentially comes down to one fundamental tension: He loved to make things simple, and to create these little devices that are sleek and simplify our communication to one button, but what he found was life doesn’t have one button. People are messy and complicated in so many ways, and his life is illustrative of that.”

‘The beautiful messiness of life’

Jobs was complicated and filled with contradictions. Although he was adopted himself, Jobs had a daughter he didn’t acknowledge for years. He was a creative and charismatic boss, yet he treated people as if they were machines. As a lifelong Buddhist, he sought meaning and inner peace.

When he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, instead of accepting that he needed chemotherapy, he tried to control it. “The fundamental tension between the minimalist concepts [hallmarks of Apple’s design and Zen Buddhism] and the beautiful messiness of life is what we’re focusing on in the piece,” says Bates.

Musically, Bates describes the score of the opera as “electro-acoustic.” He utilizes Wagnerian-style leitmotifs to distinguish between characters and amplify their differences, like the tones on our computers signifying different messages. Whereas Jobs is characterized by electronic sounds, not unlike those emitted by his machines (Gary Rydstrom with Skywalker Sound, who developed some of the sounds for Apple computers, consulted on the opera), his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, is characterized by soft, oceanic sounds; and his spiritual adviser, Zen Buddhist priest Kobun Chino Otogawa, by Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs.

The 90-minute production, without intermission, moves quickly in and out of 18 scenes, like so many flashbacks, in bits and bytes, as if we were clicking onto various parts of Jobs’ life in a Google search. It’s a collection of moments or events that defined him in some way, whether through a new product launch or his relationship with his wife, which lasted for more than 20 years, until his death.

The story begins and ends in the exact same place, completing the circle of Jobs’ life. He died in 2011 at the age of 56.

“I knew I didn’t want to write a chronological story because that’s kind of boring. I wanted the libretto to be as innovative as the subject,” says Campbell, who wrote the libretto in a mere one-and-a-half months.

He researched Jobs by reading anything he could find about him, and taking notes when he’d discover an interesting anecdote. “At the beginning, I can’t say I had the most favorable opinion of him. But the more I read about him, the more I liked him.

“When I read that he took acid and heard music playing, the connection to music comes in later when he’s trying to figure out how to make this computer work, and he decided it should be like a musical instrument — something we play, not that plays us. And when I found out that he was Buddhist and had an adviser, I thought, ‘That’s a cool way into this story.’ So many people think of Jobs as a raving capitalist. I was looking for ways to humanize him.”

Beyond that, both Campbell and Bates sought a thread of universality in the piece: to show how we are all Steve Jobs in some way. “I would love for people to think about how they connect to others in the 21st century,” adds Bates. “To have a true connection with anybody, you have to look up from your device. It’s a reminder that even for the person who invented these devices, sometimes old-fashioned human connection is the way to go.”

First staging

On a Monday afternoon at Gaddes Hall, one of several outdoor rehearsal spaces as part of what’s known as “The Ranch,” the sprawling 155-acre Santa Fe Opera campus set on a hilltop just down from The Crosby Theatre, a famous open-air space, the cast has gathered for the first time to stage the piece.

There is no orchestra today; merely a piano and guitar. Baritone Ed Parks, who plays Steve Jobs, is standing onstage wearing a short-sleeved cowboy shirt and jeans, and mezzo-soprano (and native Texan; she’s from College Station) Sasha Cooke, who plays his wife, is nearby in a blue and white tunic and jeans, cuffed mid-calf. Looming behind them are the oversize boxes that will be illuminated with computer-generated designs, with numbers in black tape on each one: 3-1-4-2-5-6.

“Backstage panels, go. Mid-stage panels, go. Upstage panels, go,” says Tzykun. The boxes move, splitting to the left and to the right, making a semicircle around Parks and Cooke, left standing in the center.

“That was good,” says Kevin Newbury, the director, sitting in front of the stage. “If we could go a little bit faster with these moves.”

Pieces of tape are all over the floor. Blue, purple, green, orange. Zigzags and broken lines. Tiny rooftop shapes going this way and that, indicating direction.

Even in their basic form, without projections of any kind, the boxes are like oversize characters come to life, moving around, lumbering from one side of the stage to the next, manipulated by unseen humans behind them.

“Take another sip, take another bite, steal another kiss, dance another dance, glance at the smile of the person right there next to you. Look up, look out, look around, be here now...” sings Cooke.

“ them but don’t spend your life on them...”

In front of the rehearsal stage are two rows of black folding chairs. Water bottles are scattered all over the floor, next to a few backpacks. Cast members who aren’t onstage are sitting in the chairs in clusters of threes and fours, reading copies of the score, either following along or studying their own part.

Others are gazing at their iPhones.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

  • July 22-Aug. 25
  • The Crosby Theatre
  • 301 Opera Drive, Santa Fe, N.M.