San Francisco Opera is enjoying a successful run of Mason Bates’ and Mark Campbell’s opera The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at the War Memorial Opera House. This fast-paced collage of twenty vignettes, no intermission, illustrates Steve Jobs’ complex character as he revolutionized communication from the Silicon Valley, only a few miles south of the stately opera house on Van Ness Avenue.The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is what the avant-garde German opera composers in the 1920s called a Zeitoper, meaning an opera centered on a decidedly contemporary theme. Ernst Kernel’s popular 1927 Jonny spielt auf, an opera about a black American jazz musician’s adventures in Europe, is always cited as the quintessential Zeitoper by music historians, who typically have smugly dismissed the genre as a short-lived fad that had no future influence on the opera world.
That is, until John Adams redefined contemporary opera with his first two operas, his 1987 Nixon in China and his 1991 The Death of Klinghoffer, operas based on major current events that had captivated the international news media only a few years before Adams began to compose these works. When composer Jake Heggie and librettist Terrence McNally sat down to write their first opera, they chose writings of anti-death penalty crusader Sister Helen Prejean, whose 1993 book Dead Man Walking had been made two years later into a successful motion picture. San Francisco Opera premiered Heggie’s Dead Man Walking in 2000, and a new production of this well-traveled opera has just opened the Met’s current season in New York City.
Although San Francisco Opera was one of three major companies that commissioned The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Santa Fe Opera had the honor of premiering the work in 2017. It would have been presented in San Francisco in 2000, but the Covid pandemic disrupted performance everywhere, and San Francisco Opera opened their rescheduled production on September 22, 2023.
Bates and Campbell wisely decided not to plot their opera as a Jobs biography following a strict chronological timeline, but rather chose to dart back and forth among key, symbolic moments. Jobs’ evolution comes into focus, but it is clearly less than transformation, in spite of the wise counsel from his Buddhist spiritual guide Kōbun Chino Otogawa.
Among the concisely delineated scenes, we observe 10-year-old Steve receiving a wooden workbench as a birthday gift; then working and fighting with his co-inventor Steve Wozniak; visiting an apple orchard near Los Altos; making the lives of Apple employees miserable; breaking up with the Christen Brennan, the mother of his daughter, and then finding a more grounded relationship with his wife Laurene Powell Jobs. And we even observe the ghost of the deceased Jobs hovering over his own memorial service at the Stanford University Chapel.
I found this opera surprisingly moving, due to the combination of Bates’ brilliant, buoyant score; fine singing from a well-chosen cast; crisp, urgent stage direction from Kevin Newbury, and Victoria (Vita) Tzykun’s vibrant, kinetic, aptly high tech set design.John Moore’s generously proportioned baritone splendidly fit Bates’ portrayal of Jobs’ exuberant, abrasive temperament, and tenor Bille Bruley brought his persuasive bel canto eloquence to the more compassionate inventor Steve Wozniak. Sasha Cooke’s warm, consistently compelling mezzo-soprano gave us a radiant Laurene Powell Jobs, and Olivia Smith’s bright, soaring soprano fiercely conveyed the righteous anger of Chrisann Brennan. I would have enjoyed hearing more power from Wei Wu’s deep bass as the philosophical Otogawa, but baritone Joseph Lattanzi’s cameo as Steve Jobs’ father Paul Jobs proved most satisfying.
Conductor Michael Christie presided decisively over the San Francisco Opera orchestra, demanding tight pacing and clear, sparkling textures for Bates’ bristling, evocative score. The composer played his score’s electronic keyboard part with the orchestra in the pit; his score also includes an acoustic guitar, an instrument the actual Steve Jobs favored.Chorus Director John Keene’s well-trained choristers adapted smartly and moved efficiently as Jobs’ fellow students at Reed College, Apple workers, members of the public at the San Francisco unveiling of the iPhone, and mourners at the Stanford Chapel memorial service.
San Francisco Opera presented “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House from September 22 to October 7, 2023. The performance on October 3, 2023, was attended for this review.