Even before it premiered at Santa Fe Opera, Mason Bates’ (R)evolution of Steve Jobs had runs lined up at Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera. At opening night on Saturday, representatives from those companies were surely congratulating themselves on that decision. This new opera is a crowd-pleaser. I don’t write that just because of the thunderous reception it received. (Not only on opening night – Santa Fe locals who had seen the final dress rehearsal spontaneously recommended the opera to me, without knowing about my interest in opera in general.) It is an opera that seems expressly composed to appeal to the Broadway-going public, with an easy-to-listen-to score, a 90-minute run time, lots of jokes in the libretto, a sprinkling of bathos, and high production values.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

Bates’ music, energetically conducted by Michael Christie, is an unstinting parade of rhythms. The beats and melodies continue from one scene to the next, with few pauses for applause. The score draws on electronics, acoustic guitar, and prayer bowls, as well as more typical-for-opera instruments. The overall sound is slick and sometimes jazzy, with plenty of drive. It’s clear that Bates is more comfortable writing for instruments and ensembles than for solo voices: the arias seemed well suited to the voices but uninspired. (Jobs’ catchy product launch announcement, with its change from long legato lines into short, punched words, was a memorable exception.)

Mark Campbell’s libretto is full of smart details but struggles to establish a compelling dramatic arc. The opera jumps around in time, a device that makes the action more interesting (though it can be difficult to remember what year we’re in without sneaking a glance at the scene list in the program). But for all the “(r)evolution” in the title, Jobs’ path through the opera is predictable. Professionally, he goes from garage rebel to corporate multimillionaire. Personally, his long-suffering wife Laurene forces him to acknowledge his cancer and his need for help. (I think we’re supposed to assume this acceptance of weakness makes him a nicer person, but we don’t see that.) Jobs clashes with most of the people around him, but each of those conflicts gets only a superficial treatment. Edward Parks sang the marathon role (Jobs is in every scene) in a smooth, unflagging baritone. 

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Sasha Cooke (Laurene Powell Jobs)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

The end takes a bizarre turn: Laurene urges the audience to “look up” and “look out” rather than being glued to the phones her husband popularized. I would happily listen to Sasha Cooke’s rich mezzo voice on any subject, but this one doesn’t fit the themes of the rest of the opera. Jobs’ struggles emphasize the importance of human connection, but not technology as a potential barrier to that connection. And Laurene is such an underdeveloped character that it’s hard to imagine why she feels a pressing need to lecture us.

No female character in the opera gets much of an inner life. Chrisann Brennan, young Jobs’ girlfriend and mother of his daughter Lisa, is no more than a pretty face and voice (sung in light, ringing tones by Jessica E. Jones). She’s there to demonstrate Jobs’ selfish immaturity, pre-Laurene. The men fare better. Woz comes across as fun-loving and defiant, reveling in his hacks and supporting Apple’s employees despite Jobs’ cruelty. Tenor Garrett Sorenson’s voice encompassed both extremes, from playful jazz riffs to loud, sustained anger. 

Garrett Sorenson (Woz) and Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Garrett Sorenson (Woz) and Edward Parks (Steve Jobs)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

The opera’s most winning character is Jobs’ super-sassy spiritual adviser, Kōbun. Wei Wu stole the show with his mellow bass and deadpan delivery of Campbell’s cleverly crafted lines. (A favorite: He responds to Jobs’ “what is this?” about his memorial service with, “Doesn’t look like another product launch. Thank God for that.”) 

Director Kevin Newbury’s production is as glossy as the score. Large blocks slide around the stage, serving as screens for projections by 59 Productions. With these and a few seats and cushions, Newbury conjures up and instantly transitions between the opera’s dozen-ish locations. The technology that allows the projections to follow the blocks is impressive, but the projections themselves are of inconsistent quality. The iPhone product launch shows a clunky-looking interface – at odds with the design perfectionism Jobs espouses. During long instrumental sections, we are hit over the head with software-as-emotions metaphors. Interfaces and headlines swirl around with suggestions like “reboot” after Jobs is fired. The libretto already makes the analogy between Jobs and his products clear; this is overkill.

Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Jonah Sorenson (Young Steve Jobs) © Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017
Edward Parks (Steve Jobs) and Jonah Sorenson (Young Steve Jobs)
© Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera, 2017

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is not a perfect opera. I have reservations about the character development and quibbles with the production details. But it is an opera that audiences are thrilled about. That enthusiasm is good, for the opera companies that present Steve Jobs and for the genre as a whole.