Santa Fe Opera announces world premiere opera on life of Steve Jobs

Mason Bates and Mark Campbell, creative team for "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs," already well known to Washington classical music fans.

Apple "Think Different" motto.

SANTA FE, N,M. — In a well-attended news conference Wednesday morning, Santa Fe Opera (SFO) general director Charles MacKay announced that the company’s next new opera commission, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” will receive its world premiere performance in 2017. The creative team for the new opera will be well-known composer Mason Bates and acclaimed veteran librettist Mark Campbell. “Jobs” will mark Bates’ first venture into the opera genre.

John Campbell (L) and Mason Bates (R) at Santa Fe Opera. (Image courtesy Mr. Bates' Facebook page.)
John Campbell (L) and Mason Bates (R) at Santa Fe Opera. (Image courtesy Mr. Bates’ Facebook page.)

“Riding on the heels of Jennifer Higdon and Gene Scheer’s ‘Cold Mountain’,” which received both audience and critical acclaim at its world premiere on Saturday,” said MacKay, “it is a thrill to announce Santa Fe Opera’s next major commission. ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’ will mark the company’s 15th world premiere, continuing the tradition of producing work that pushes the boundaries of the art form.”

Also present at the news conference, “Cold Mountain” composer Jennifer Higdon − a first-time opera composer herself − praised SFO for its willingness to embrace new, contemporary American operas. She wished both the company and the new “Jobs” team well on their endeavors, adding, “I hope you bring in a lot of people who have never experienced opera.”

SFO’s official release described the upcoming new opera as one that explores what Gerard Manley Hopkins might have called Steve Jobs’ “inscape” − the interior landscape that made this innovative but difficult genius tick. Jobs, notes SFO’s release, was “an innovator who simplified communication with sleek devices, but who paradoxically learned that complex human relationships require more than one button to work. The opera starts at a moment in Jobs’ life when he must face his own mortality and circles back to the events and people in his past that shaped and inspired him: his father Paul, Zen Buddhism, his relationship with a woman whose child he initially disowned, his quick rise and fall as mogul, and – most importantly – his wife Laurene, who showed him the power of love and connection. ‘The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs’ seeks to capture the buzzing creative realm of Silicon Valley with a kinetic electro-acoustic score, lush vocal writing, a compelling non-linear narrative, and a production as innovative as the man himself.”

Steve Jobs' vision for the original Macintosh computer changed TV advertising forever.
Steve Jobs’ vision for the original Macintosh computer changed TV advertising forever.

In his remarks at the press conference, Campbell echoed this observations, noting “Steve Jobs was a very difficult man, often impossible.” Having for a time lost his way in Silicon Valley’s culture of “power and greed,” he continued, Jobs once again found his way, ultimately becoming “one of the greatest innovators of the century,” he said, noting once again the original Apple guru’s less well-known journey through Zen Buddhism and Tibetan mysticism.

Bates followed up on these ideas with hints on how they are being incorporated into his still evolving score, which will include decidedly non-traditional electronic instrumentation; acoustic guitar music, which Jobs is said to have enjoyed and which does have earlier precedents in operas like Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”; and, the composer hinted, perhaps a few sounds from early Apple computers.

Mason Bates and Mark Campbell are already familiar figures in Washington, known for their work with Wolf Trap Opera and the Kennedy Center.

Campbell provided the libretto for John Musto’s comic opera “Volpone,” commissioned and premiered by the Wolf Trap Opera Company and Foundation in 2004. Based on the uproarious comic drama of Shakespeare contemporary Ben Jonson, “Volpone” scored a hit with Wolf Trap Opera audiences. The company’s later 2009 recording of the work was nominated for a Grammy Award as that year’s best opera recording.

Santa Fe Opera's Crosby Theatre, via Wikipedia. Photo illustrates the unusual "sails" designed to keep out New Mexico's summer monsoon rains during performances.
Santa Fe Opera’s Crosby Theatre, via Wikipedia. Photo illustrates the unusual “sails” designed to keep out New Mexico’s summer monsoon rains during performances.

More recently, Campbell collaborated with composer D. J. Sparr to create “Approaching Ali,” a newly commissioned one-act opera premiered by the Washington National Opera (WNO) that followed the trail of Mohammed Ali’s controversial championship boxing career in a non-linear fashion by means of recollections and flashbacks by the now greatly disabled boxer.

It appears that Campbell will be putting some of the experience he gained with “Ali” in his structure for “Jobs,” which will also be non-linear, unfolding from the outset as the title character contemplates his own mortality near the end of his life.

Currently, Campbell also serves as a mentor for up-and-coming young librettists in WNO’s American Opera Initiative in addition to his numerous additional activities.

Raised in Richmond, Va., Bates, now based in California’s Bay Area, is already a well-known figure in the rising pantheon of exciting new American composers. He has an affinity for electronic and other unusual instrumentation − at least with regard to the classical and operatic genres − as exemplified in his “Alternative Energy,” an “energy symphony” unveiled by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and “Liquid Interface,” a “water symphony” commissioned by Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra (NSO). Recordings of these two works are scheduled for release by the San Francisco Orchestra.

In addition, Bates was recently appointed the Kennedy Center’s first-ever composer-in-residence, in addition to holding that post with the Chicago Symphony.

Regarding his exciting new venture with SFO, Bates said, “I am honored to bring the story of Steve Jobs to this wonderful house and look forward to many more visits in the course of its creation.”

It looks like that one-time Apple mantra, “Think Different,” may very well be influencing the world of opera come 2017. Stay tuned.

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