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‘Steve Jobs’ a seamless blend of electronica and symphonic music

 

Edward Parks plays Steve Jobs (Courtesy of the Santa Fe Opera)

 

The much anticipated Santa Fe Opera’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiered last weekend. The opera is co-commissioned with the Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera and Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music. With a scintillating score and stunning scenic projection, Director Kevin Newbury’s 90-minute production is musically dazzling and visually stunning.

Techno visionary and Apple co-founder, Steve Jobs, a complex charismatic figure, has been at the heart of several feature films and documentaries. With a libretto by Pulitzer Prize winning (Silent Night) Mark Campbell and a score by highly admired and much-in-demand composer, Martin Bates, the opera’s narrative, composed of arias and recitatives, unfolds in 18 short scenes. Flashbacks take place during the course of one day in 2007. Beginning with 10-year-old Jobs in 1965 in the Jobs’ family home garage with his father, Paul, the scenes leap back and forth into the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, revealing key events in Job’s life. These include personal memories and discoveries that led to his staggering revolutionizing of communication. (“One device, does it all. In one hand. All you need . . . In your pocket, Everything,” he sings.) Through these leaps, Jobs is on a quest for inner peace. With the help of his wife Laurene Powell Jobs, sung by Sasha Cooke and his spiritual mentor, Kobun Chino Otogawa, sung by Wei Wu, he finds it.

The minimalist set design involves a panel of iPhone screen monoliths, if you will, on which different images are projected. Scenes ranging from an apple orchard to a calligraphy class (where Jobs discovers the enso symbol of enlightment), to a Buddhist Center and more, providing an exceptional ambient narrative. At times the tall screen walls separated to border Jobs’ family home garage, and once, the lovely sunset-colored Jemez Mountains in the distance.

Campbell calls his libretto an “entertainment,” a work of fiction based as facts. Adding that he didn’t want to write a “biopic.” The writing is pithy, if not exactly poetic (Jobs was literary). However, there is nice hidden rhyme in some phrases as well as standout lyric lines in a few of the arias. (Kobun: “Quite a sun. Always loveliest when it’s leaving.”) And there’s humor, often delivered by Kobun, which lightens the story line. The opera comes full circle to the Jobs’ family home garage where one can say, the “(R)evolution” began.

Mason Bates’ brilliant first opera score is a seamless blend of electronics and traditional orchestra with acoustic guitar added (Jobs loved acoustic guitar). His score is defined by innovative rhythmical texture and lovely string lyricism. Providing the electronics is Bates on an electronica built from Mac parts, at which he will be every performance night. The electronica often dramatically enhances the emotional impact in a scene; such as when Jobs, sung by baritone, Edward Parks, is ousted from Apple. Jobs crumbles to the floor, stage lights dim, and a long interlude of deafening, tumultuous waves of sound rise from the pit, accompanied by an onslaught of pulsating light-filled video images on the screen walls. The scene grips the heart.

Parks appears in Jobs’ signature black turtleneck, jeans and tennis shoes (Jobs called it a “uniform.”) through the duration. His strong baritone was nuanced and sonorant, though more intensity in his role, reminiscent of the volatile Jobs, would have added to the drama. Mezzo-soprano, Sasha Cooke’s voice was luxurious, full-bodied and round, so powerful that at times when the electro-acoustic orchestra was at a fortissimo level, she could still be heard over the group. She sensitively portrayed Laurene, Jobs’ gentle, comforting influence. Tenor Garrett Sorenson is Steve Wozniak “Woz.” Consistently rich-toned and deeply “in character,” he was a perfect Woz. Scenes with him and Jobs were dynamic, especially when Woz breaks with Jobs: “You’ve become one of the people we hated: A Goliath.” As Job’s spiritual master, Wu was elegant, reflectively gazing out into space, as he sang with a stirring, lustrous voice. SFO apprentice Jessica E. Jones sings Crissan Brennan, Jobs’ girlfriend. Her lyric soprano had a pretty ringing quality to it, though it was at times thin. Lyric baritone Kelly Markgraf, as Paul Jobs, and calligraphy teacher Mariya Kangaskaya were solid. Markgraf’s wonderfully rich voice was a pleasure.

Broadening the scope of the traditional thematic motif, Bates created “sound worlds” for each; the electronica for Jobs; “oceanic harmonies,” for Laurene; Tibetan prayer bowls and flute for Kobun; Saxophone for “Woz,” and fluttery flutes for Chrissan.

Great praise goes to the superb team of designers: sets, Victoria “Vita” Tzykun; lighting, Japhy Weideman; production, 59 Productions; sound, Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach for providing a dazzling feast for the eyes and ears. Included are Paul Carey, costume design (amazing number of changes in costume): and Chloe Treat, choreography. Her light-footed ensemble of reporters, co-workers students, etc. moved quickly and effortlessly on stage. They also provided excellent background harmony to the solo singing, thanks to chorus master Susanne Sheston.

Conductor Michael Christie kept the production moving with his clear, decisive beat and cues to the stage and pit. The electro-acoustic orchestra was fabulous.

Future performances will take place Aug. 4, 10, 15 and 25 with and an added performance on Aug. 22.

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