Sing Different: Steve Jobs' Life Becomes An Opera

Jul 22, 2017
Originally published on July 22, 2017 8:08 am

Mark Campbell is one of the most prolific and celebrated librettists in contemporary American opera. But, as he recently told an audience at the Guggenheim Museum, not everyone thought his latest project was a good idea.

"I've had a number of socialist friends of mine saying, 'Why would you write an opera about Steve Jobs? He was the worst capitalist!' " he said.

Campbell's response to those naysayers? " 'Reach in your pocket — you probably have an iPhone there.' "

Jobs has been the subject of movies and books, and now the Apple co-founder's life has also become the stuff of opera. A decade after Apple released its first smartphone, The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs premieres Saturday on the stage of the Santa Fe Opera.

Even Campbell was initially skeptical of the idea, which came from 40-year-old composer Mason Bates. Bates was convinced that in Jobs' "complicated and messy" life, he'd found the right subject for his very first opera.

"He had a daughter he didn't acknowledge for many years; he had cancer — you can't control that," Bates says. "He was, while a very charismatic figure, quite a hard-driving boss. And his collisions with the fact that he wanted to make everything sleek and controllable — yet life is not controllable — is a fascinating topic for an opera."

The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs shifts back and forth in time over the course of 18 scenes. Its fragmented, non-linear narrative was a deliberate choice by Campbell and Bates, who wanted to reflect Jobs' personality and psyche. "Steve Jobs did have a mind that just jumped from idea to idea to idea — it was very quick," Campbell says.

Bates also created a different "sound world" to match each character. Jobs, for instance, played guitar and spent much of his life dealing with electronics, and so he "has this kind of busy, frenetic, quicksilver world of acoustic guitar and electronica," Bates explains. On the other hand, he says, Jobs' wife, Laurene Powell, inhabits a "completely different space, of these kind of oceanic, soulful strings."

Other characters include Steve Wozniak, Jobs' business partner, and the Japanese-born Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa, who led Jobs to convert to Buddhism and served as a mentor for much of his life. Otogawa's "almost purely electronic" sound world makes use of prayer bowls and processed Thai gongs.

As often happens when his compositions premiere, Bates will be seated among the orchestra musicians, triggering sounds and playing rhythms from two laptops. And before you ask: Yes, they are Mac computers. (Bates is quick to note he's not sponsored.)

Even the set echoes Jobs' creations. After a prologue in the iconic garage where Jobs' ideas first took shape, the garage walls explode into six moving cubes with screens that look a lot like iPhones. "We're doing something called projection mapping, where all of the scenic units have little sensors, so the video actually moves with them," opera director Kevin Newbury explains. "We wanted to integrate it seamlessly into the design because that's what Steve Jobs and Apple did with the products themselves."

Jobs's design sensibilities were enormously influenced by Japanese calligraphy — including the ensō, a circle that depicts the mind being free to let the body create. Bates says that also figures in the opera's title: The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs, with the capital "R" in parentheses.

"Of course, there's the revolution of Steve Jobs in his creations and his devices. There's also the evolution from a countercultural hippie to a mogul of the world's most valuable company," Bates points out. "And there's the revolution in a circle of Steve Jobs as he looks at the ensō, this piece of Japanese calligraphy, and finds that when he can kind of come full circle, he reaches the kind of completion that he sought so long in his life."

That's the side of Jobs this new opera explores: the way his life was marked by the struggle to find the balance between life's imperfections and his drive to create the perfect thing.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Steve Jobs has been the subject of movies and books, but his complicated life and the ubiquitous objects he left behind also turned out to be the stuff of opera. Ten years after Apple released its first smartphone, the story of the genius behind the company comes to stage - the stage of the Santa Fe Opera tonight. Naomi Lewin reports on the premiere of "The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs."

NAOMI LEWIN, BYLINE: Mark Campbell is one of the most prolific librettists in contemporary American opera. But as he recently told an audience at the Guggenheim Museum, not everyone thought this project was a good idea.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARK CAMPBELL: I've had a number of socialist friends of mine saying, why would you write an opera about Steve Jobs? He was the worst capitalist. And I'll say, reach in your pocket. You probably have an iPhone there.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #1: (As character, singing) Tap, get the news. Tap, set a date. Tap, book a flight. Tap, stay in touch. Tap, stay in shape.

LEWIN: The idea came from composer Mason Bates. And though his librettist was initially skeptical, too, the 40-year-old Bates was convinced he'd found the right subject for his first opera.

MASON BATES: Steve Jobs' life was complicated and messy. He had a daughter that he didn't acknowledge for many years. He had cancer. You can't control that. He was, while a very charismatic figure, quite a hard-driving boss. And his collisions with the fact that he wanted to make everything sleek and controllable, yet life is not controllable, is a fascinating topic for an opera.

LEWIN: Rather than creating a chronological life story, librettist Mark Campbell says the two collaborators opted for a fragmented narrative to reflect the man and his machines.

CAMPBELL: Steve Jobs did have a mind that just jumped from idea to idea to idea. It was very quick. And we wanted to tell an opera that is also very quick, that jumps around.

LEWIN: "The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs" shifts back and forth in time over the course of 18 scenes. And Bates created a different sound world for each character. Since Jobs played guitar and spent much of his time dealing with electronics...

BATES: Steve Jobs has this kind of busy, frenetic, quicksilver world of acoustic guitar and electronica.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASON BATES OPERA, "THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS")

BATES: His wife - completely different space of these kind of oceanic, soulful strings.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS")

SASHA COOKE: (As Laurene Powell Jobs, singing) You know what you need. You really need some rest.

LEWIN: Other characters include Jobs' partner, Steve Wozniak, and the Japanese-born Zen priest Kobun Chino Otogawa, who led Jobs to convert to Buddhism and served as a mentor for much of his life.

BATES: Kobun, the spiritual adviser, has an almost purely electronic world with prayer bowls and processed Thai gongs.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS")

WEI WU: (As Kobun Chino Otogawa, singing) Karma can suck.

(LAUGHTER)

WU: (As Kobun Chino Otogawa, singing) What'd you expect? Simplify doesn't mean be selfish.

LEWIN: As often happens when his compositions premiere, Mason Bates will be seated among the orchestra musicians playing a pair of laptop computers.

BATES: Yes, they are Macintosh. No, I'm not sponsored. And I'm triggering sounds. I'm actually playing rhythms, everything from electronic beats to the sounds of early Apple computer gear to processed prayer bowls.

(SOUNDBITE OF MASON BATES OPERA, "THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS")

LEWIN: The opera's structure reinforces Jobs' notion of connecting the dots by looking backwards. And the set echoes his creations, says the opera's director, Kevin Newbury. After a prologue in the iconic garage where Jobs' ideas first took shape, the garage walls explode into six moving cubes with screens which look a lot like iPhones.

KEVIN NEWBURY: We're doing something called projection mapping where all of the scenic units have little sensors so the video actually moves with them. We wanted to integrate it seamlessly into the design because that's what Steve Jobs and Apple did with the products themselves.

LEWIN: Jobs' sense of design was enormously influenced by Japanese calligraphy, including the enso, a circle that depicts the mind being free to let the body create.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (As character, singing) In Japanese calligraphy, the enso is basically a circle.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) A circle.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #2: (As character, singing) Drawn in one or two continual strokes.

LEWIN: The Mason Bates says that also figures in the opera's title, "The (R)evolution Of Steve Jobs," with the capital R in parentheses.

BATES: Of course, there's the revolution of Steve Jobs in his creations and his devices. There's also the evolution from a countercultural hippie to a mogul of the world's most valuable company. And there's the revolution in a circle of Steve Jobs as he looks at the enso, this piece of Japanese calligraphy, and finds that when he can kind of come full circle he reaches the kind of completion that he sought so long in his life.

LEWIN: A life marked by a struggle to find the balance between life's imperfections and the drive to create the perfect thing. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Lewin.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS")

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (As characters, singing) Simplicity.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER #3: (As character, singing) Simplicity. Simplicity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.