Mark Gresham | 3 MAY 2022
~Kōbun Chino Otogawa (乙川 弘文)
Opening night of The Atlanta Opera‘s new production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs on Saturday powerfully demonstrated that it is an opera both of our times and for our times. It comes as the product of a collaboration between the Atlanta Opera and four other companies: Austin Opera, Kansas City Lyric Opera, Utah Opera, and Calgary Opera.
The 2017 opera focuses on the conflicting life and personality of the American entrepreneur, inventor, business magnate, media proprietor, and investor Steve Jobs (1955 – 2011); arguably the best known among pioneers of the personal computer revolution of the 1970s and 1980s in popular culture.
With music by Mason Bates and libretto by Mark Campbell, the opera takes the perspective of the dying Jobs (convincingly portrayed by baritone John Moore) reflecting on his life and five of his closest relationships in a stream-of-consciousness sequence of Prologue, 17 scenes, and Epilogue, without intermission, which, like an ensō (a disciplined-creative Zen practice of Japanese sumi-e black ink painting) circles back upon itself.
However, the libretto’s narrative along is hardly that of a a simple circular path. The Prologue begins in 1965 in the Jobs family garage in Los Altos, California, when Paul Jobs (Daniel Armstrong) presents his 10-year-old son, Steve (Joseph Waller), with a home-built workbench as a birthday present. A space of his own that, he declares, will be for Steve “a good place to start” to build things on his own and to take things apart.
The story then shifts forward to 2007 for three scenes: first, where the adult Jobs publicly debuts his revolutionary “one device” at a technology convention in San Francisco with great energy but is observably tired at the end; at the corporate offices in Cupertino just after, where his wife Laurene Powell Jobs (Sarah Larsen) admonishes him for not taking better care of himself (foreshadowing a critical scene near the end); and later that afternoon during a long meditative walk in the hills around Cupertino.
With the foundation for the story now in place, it is there (Scene 3) on the walk that Steve Jobs encounters the apparition of his Zen master and mentor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa (Adam Lau), who had died two years before. Kōbun acts as his guide through the process of Jobs reflecting on his life. The scenes flow in a stream-of-consciousness sequence, jumping back and forth between the mid-1970s, the early 1980s, and 1989 when he met Laurene.
This brilliantly inspired original production and staging by Tomer Zvulun and its remarkable set design by Jacob A. Climer are a big part of what allows this kind of storytelling to happen on stage so seamlessly and with a genuinely cinematic feel.
The basic structure of platforms, staircases, and the like are abstract and simple flat gray, so it serves as a non-descript foundation for the chameleon-like changes in scenery brought to bear digitally on 28 sizeable high-definition video screens as well as projected onto the back of the stage.
These digital video elements, which occasionally include some exceptionally fast-paced montages and animations, are sequenced beautifully with Bates’ music, which beautifully merges live and electronic components, including sounds generated by a 1980s Macintosh computer as well as digitally appropriated sounds such as the drones of brass Buddhist prayer bowls. The electronic sounds do not go about drawing attention to themselves simply for being “electronic”; they instead come across as an impressively organic extension of the orchestra.
The Atlanta Opera Orchestra, under the baton of Michael Christie, was at the top of its game. They sounded fully engaged in the music, contributing mightily to the opera’s vital energy and forward momentum.
The cast of singers chosen by Zvulun is strong, each well-suited and adept at their roles and vocal performance, as well as visually convincing.
Bille Bruley is truly likable as Jobs’ best friend Steve “Woz” Wozniak, a classic technical genius who is joyfully idealistic and mischievous, loves taking down corporate Goliaths, and has compassion for his fellow workers.
Elizabeth Sutphen effectively plays Jobs’ longtime hippie-artist girlfriend Chrisann Brennan, a wordsmith who introduces him to LSD and later becomes pregnant with his daughter.
These characters become intensely disturbed and affected by Jobs’ increasing egotism, obsession with work and perfection, and his lack of human empathy as the company becomes highly successful (early 1980s): Chrisann, when Jobs demands she get an abortion and later dismisses their daughter Lisa after she is born. And when Jobs refuses a pay a pension to one of their valued workers in trouble, Wozniak decries how Jobs has changed and quits the company. (Important to note here that Campbell’s libretto never mentions Apple the company name, or any Apple product names. Wise move.)
Jobs’ obsession and ego crisis finally climax when the company board demotes him (1986), shoving him out of any position of power. After which, he quits, leaving the company he founded.
The wisdom Kōbun imparts to Jobs is simple and to the point: “Karma sucks.”
After that, we return to 2007 and Jobs’ meditative walk in the Cupertino Hills. The ghost of Kōbun is still with him. Kōbun reminds Jobs that learning his mistakes was necessary to his life and reminds him of the positive aspects, especially the true love of his life, Laurene.
When Steve gets back home, Laurene confronts him about the need to treat his pancreatic cancer with conventional medicine instead of homeopathic. She successfully persuades him, and he agrees to do so as he finally comes to accept his life, his illness, and his mortality.
Laurene leaves, and Kōbun conjures for Steve the memory of his marriage to Laureen at Yosemite National Park. As Steve professes his love for her, the scene changes to 2011, and Kōbun shows Steve his memorial service at Stanford University Chapel, where Laurene and Woz both contemplate Steve’s legacy. Laurene asserts that regardless of how differently people may feel about the man himself, his influence on our world is undeniable.
Like the brush path of the ensō, the opera’s imagery comes full circle in the Epilogue, with a poignant reprise of the Prologue scene where Paul Jobs gives young Steve the workbench as “a good place to start” with Laurene looking on.
But among its final reflections on the complex personality that was Steve Jobs, the opera makes a significant human speculation from which we all should learn: that a Steve Jobs v2.0 would have this to say today to all who have their faces and minds buried in the devices he helped create: “Look up.” ■
The Atlanta Opera will perform The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs again tonight (Tuesday, May 3), then two more on Friday, May 6, and Sunday, May 8 at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre.
- The Atlanta Opera: atlantaopera.org