John Moore as Steve Jobs with Bille Bruley as Steve Wozniak in "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs." (credit: Erich Schlegal)

The evolution of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

Mark Gresham | 28 APR 2022

This Saturday, The Atlanta Opera presents its opening night performance of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell in new original production and staging by Tomer Zvulun, the company’s general and artistic director.

The Atlanta Opera collaborated with Lyric Opera of Kansas City, Austin Opera, Utah Opera, and Calgary Opera to bring Zvulun’s v2.0 production of this innovative 100-minute opera to life. It has already seen two performances in Austin in February and three during March in Kansas City. The Atlanta Opera will perform The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs four times: April 30 and May 3, 6, and 8. It will then go to Salt Lake City, Utah, and Calgary, Alberta, during the 2022-23 season.

In separate phone conversations, days apart, EarRelevant’s publisher and principal writer Mark Gresham spoke first with Mason Bates and then with Tomer Zvulun about the opera, this production, and their inspiration. Edited excerpts from each conversation have been carefully threaded together by the author to create the following composite narrative.

• • •
It may surprise some readers that Tomer Zvulun had never seen the original production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, but that also means he approached it with fresh creative eyes. Here’s what he had to say about his thoughts on the significance of the opera itself, and his vision for creating this new production.

Tomer Zvulun: First of all, Steve Jobs is one of the most iconic people of our time. He completely transformed how we think about the world, how we think about knowledge, how we communicate verbally and in writing, and how we access music. His innovations revolutionized so many industries and are such a big part of our lives. Everyone already has a relationship with him because his devices are in our pockets. Right now, I’m talking to you on my iPhone with my Apple EarPods, and I’m looking at notes on my iPad, so it’s all around us.

The real Steve Jobs presenting the iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference. (credit: Matthew Yohe / via Wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

The real Steve Jobs presenting the iPhone 4 at the 2010 Worldwide Developers Conference. (credit: Matthew Yohe,CC BY-SA 3.0)

Despite all this, or maybe because of it, he was a very complex person, and he represents this intersection between technology and art. You have a very operatic character in Steve Jobs because he’s very flawed, and the greatest operatic characters have flaws.

He represents this radical contrast: On the one hand, you have this barefoot hippie, and on the other hand, you have a sophisticated yuppie. You have somebody who was a Zen Buddhist, and at the same time, he was a power-wielding CEO. He was an artist, but he was also a businessman.

So you have this dichotomy that Mark Campbell captured so well in his libretto. The way that Campbell tells the story, and the music that Mason wrote for it, is a very cinematic rendering of Steve Jobs told in vignettes of his life with frequent jumps in location and time. It’s not a typical biopic. Rather than create a realistic manifestation of some environment, this production is more like a fever dream, like a sleepless night when Steve Jobs reflects back on his life. It’s like Steve is the hub of a wheel, and all those other characters surround him, and each one illuminates him differently. It really homes in on the character’s psychology, not just on biographical details – especially in our production.

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Our production design is highly technical. It has to be because we’re telling the story of the most high-tech icon of our time. The set designer, Jacob Climer, created a world that takes Mason Bates’ remarkable music and magnifies its color and texture. We have 28 HD TVs connected together to create this wall of light and image and texture and color, and it’s ever-changing, so all you need to do is press a button, and suddenly you’re in the Yosemite wedding in 1991, or you’re in an acid dream that Jobs has, or you’re in the boardroom. The tech has to frame the story because this is the world of Steve Jobs, after all. But what really makes this a masterpiece is not the technology; it’s the relationships within it.

• • •
Although Zvulun had not seen the original production, I was able to turn to composer Mason Bates for perspective vis-a-vis his opera’s evolution from the original production to this new one.

Mason Bates: The original production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs had some incredibly novel elements of stagecraft that were important for its premiere. For example, six giant monolithic columns, lit from the inside and projected on from the outside, were moved around the stage and reconfigured from shaping a garage to shaping an office. The issue was that the focus stayed on those half dozen stage elements, and they became the dominant element of the entire production.

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We’re now going into the new life of this piece with a new production. We wanted to find a way to tell the story that was both physically bigger and more portable, and easy for many different opera companies to do.

The solution that Tomer’s team came up with is awesome. It’s multi-level, so we’ve got a couple of different levels on the stage. One of the most incredible parts is that the video design is extremely synced up with the music. It almost feels in some places like you’re watching a music video.

They found a way to tell the story and lean into both the technological and the human element by giving us a set that is both abstract – just a bank of flat video screens – while also being able to become incredibly realistic, like in the wedding scene in Yosemite with trees and mountains.

Full stage in Yosemite mode. (credit: Erich Schlegal / Austin Opera)

Full stage in Yosemite mode. (credit: Erich Schlegal)

I think that the balance of both traditional and new reflects the DNA of the piece. Even though it has all these new surfaces and new elements from electronic sounds, it also is a number opera that behaves in some ways like traditional number operas do, with those kinds of standalone arias and choruses. I like the mix of old and new, and the production perfectly reflects that. It is a very powerful combination if you handle that deftly.

• • •
As we talked further, Zvulun brought the broad range of emotions different people feel for Steve Jobs into greater focus, particularly for the creative forces behind the opera and this production. And the impact of Bates’ music on the audience.
Tomer Zvulun (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

Tomer Zvulun (courtesy of The Atlanta Opera)

Zvulun: Again, what’s neat about Steve Jobs is that each of us has a relationship with him. Some people adore him, some put him on a pedestal, and some think he’s a monster. It’s fascinating to talk to different people because everybody feels very strongly about him. For example, Mark Campbell doesn’t like Steve Jobs. Although he doesn’t idolize him like John Moore, who is playing Steve Jobs in this production, Mason Bates sympathizes with him. He understands this man. Bates, just like Steve Jobs, is inspired by the intersection between music and technology. That’s very important because Steve Jobs is about the intersection between music and technology, arts and business.

Somehow Bates’ music offers this immediate connection to contemporary audiences, and I cannot explain it because it doesn’t often happen that contemporary music connects to modern audiences. He found a way to flawlessly move between a classical style, on the one hand, with lyrical beauty and beautiful moments that sometimes sound like they’re traditional opera; on the other hand, he does all those electronics techno-beats that create this singular contemporary soundscape. I think that’s the reason for its success.

• • •
This was not the first time I have interviewed Mason Bates. The first was in 2003, for an article in Creative Loafing about his double life as a classically trained composer and a very active electronica DJ, when his work for electronics and orchestra, the concerto-like Sounds for His Animation, was performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra with with the composer as synthesizer soloist. It was, however, the first phone conversation Bates and I have had since then. I wanted to know about his personal musical evolution over those two decades leading up to The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Here’s what he had to say:

Bates: In 2003, I was just starting to integrate electronic sounds into the orchestra. At the time, I hadn’t realized that this world of electronica would go beyond rhythms and beats and into more theatrical space. This new element coming to the symphonic space, coming to the opera house, was a revelation for me.

That’s not unlike the programmatic symphonies of the nineteen century, almost like stories in music, using novel orchestrations and sounds. I found that approach was really attractive to me, using twenty-first-century digital sounds. And storytelling, whether on stage in an opera or in a concert hall with a symphony, is an element of what I do.

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Incorporating electronics into classical media has transformed how I think about what an orchestra can do and what can be done in an opera house. It’s also been a fresh reminder that this field is continually changing. We always think of the orchestra as a set thing for over a hundred years. But I’ve watched in the twenty years since we first spoke: orchestras have gone from at first scratching their heads at incorporating electronic sounds to seeing that this is a new world that they can experience with just a little bit of setup.

Mason Bates (credit: Todd Rosenberg)

Mason Bates (credit: Todd Rosenberg)

Seeing how an orchestra can evolve has inspired me to continue thinking creatively about how I interact with these forces.

The key to balancing all that is never forgetting the listeners’ basic needs. You want to be surprised, you want to be moved, you want things to be astonishing, to be exciting. Most of the time, you want to feel like you are following a kind of shape, so it’s balancing new elements with core human emotional needs. That’s been the journey for me these past twenty years.

The other thing is that I’m always searching, in a very Steve Jobs kind of way, for something that’s simple and inevitable at the same time. Finding simplicity is difficult, so when you hear Steve Jobs singing in this piece “simplicity, simplicity,” and his Buddhist mentor is coaching him on how to do that in a mindful way, that’s something I can relate to totally.

• • •
When asked what he would like to say about the opera that he had never before been asked about in an interview, like Zvulun, Bates turned to the subject of Jobs’ relationships, focusing on one in particular:

Bates: One thing that’s critical in the opera is the role of Laurene Jobs. Everyone focuses on Steve Jobs because he’s this transformative figure who transformed everything he touched from industry to industry and yet also managed to be a kind of an artist-mogul at the same time. But the people around him, particularly his wife, were central in achieving what he did.

So early on, Mark Campbell and I discussed the importance of Laurene and having her grow in importance as the opera unfolds.

Laurene Powell Jobs (source: Government of Chile via Wikimedia CC BY 3.0 CL)

Laurene Powell Jobs (image: Government of Chile, CC BY 3.0 CL)

What’s surprising is that she steals the show at the very end of the opera where she has two big numbers. It’s something based in truth, what she definitely said to Steve Jobs: If you don’t start taking chemotherapy and stop the homeopathic approaches to cancer, I can’t just watch you die. So she just put her foot down, and that’s one of the arias. That’s reflective of Laurene’s work over the time that Steve’s been gone. She’s been very much about education and empowering disadvantaged youth. She’s been much more broadly interested in the human condition than in devices and whatnot. It also makes for a fun theatrical surprise when you realize you’re learning as much about Laurene Jobs as about Steve Jobs.

That’s something that audiences really respond to, having this surprising shift in focus towards the end.

At the end of the day, if the opera was just about the guy and the iPad and so-forth, it’s not necessarily as interesting as if you present how he impacts human beings. That’s why his life is so much the stuff of opera. He’s got obsession, death, and betrayal. He also has the love of his life, Laurene. She’s essential to the story, and I’d like to invite people in Atlanta to watch her grow as the opera unfolds.

The Atlanta Opera opens its production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs this Saturday, April 30, at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, with three more performances scheduled for May 3, 6 & 8.


Mark Gresham

Mark Gresham is publisher and principal writer of EarRelevant. he began writing as a music journalist over 30 years ago, but has been a composer of music much longer than that. He was the winner of an ASCAP/Deems Taylor Award for music journalism in 2003.