Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Seattle Opera: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

I saw The (R)evolution of Steven Jobs on Saturday night at the Seattle Opera.  It was bad.  Unfortunately, the main problem with it is the actual subject matter.  Steven Jobs’s life is simply not interesting enough to serve as good matter for an opera.  What did the man do?  He designed some nice products, had a tempestuous relationship with colleagues, was a total shit to his family, got cancer, died.  A worthy subject for biography?  Sure.  An important figure in American life?  No question.  But it's a life short on dramatic material.  And even the few sparks you could generate are either tedious (office politics) or banal (marital spats).  In addition, the box office failure of two biopics about Steve Jobs are evidence enough that the general public really doesn’t care about him, despite the fanboy adulation of him in some quarters.  There is much that is good in this production but, like matter being sucked into a black hole, it can’t escape the gravitational pull of the nullity at the center of it.  

John Moore and Emily Fons
(Photo Credit: Philip Newton)
With music by Mason Bates and a libretto by Mark Campbell, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is pure hagiography.  According to Bates’s comments in the program notes, Jobs was “a visionary of Jesus-like charisma.”  No.  Structured in seventeen scenes, with an additional Prologue and Epilogue, TRSJ jumps around in the life of its subject.  We get Jobs unveiling the iPhone in 2007, then Jobs taking a calligraphy class in 1974, then off to 1989 when he meets his future wife, then back to 1986 where he abuses his employees and is kicked out of his own company, etc.  Along the way he encounters the spirit of his deceased Buddhist mentor, Kōbun Chino Otogawa, who offers him platitudes about simplicity and the importance of being present in the moment.  Jobs, in turns out, was a devout Buddhist.  (Why is it that Westerners who adopt Buddhism are usually the biggest assholes of them all?)  None of this is particularly gripping.  Imagine if instead of Steve Jobs we were dealing with an opera about, say, Thomas Edison.  We would watch him invent the light bulb, and then the phonograph, and then something else; he’d abuse the people in his workshop; he’d fight with colleagues; then he would find peace with God.  Yawn.   

But, as I said, there are some very good things in TRSJ.  Bates music is a delight.  It surges and swirls, moving always, a beautiful combination of the traditional orchestra with electronic music as well.  Jobs sings about the restlessness of his mind and Bates brings that fully to life.  Nicole Paiement, in her Seattle Opera debut, conducted with passion and command.  The singing is uniformly good.  In the title role baritone John Moore almost never leaves the stage during the opera's intermission-free 95-minute running time.  His Jobs, so unlike the real one, is a winning and at times endearing figure. The aria in which Jobs imagines the computer as "something we play" was a show-stopper.  There was good singing from Adam Lau as Kōbun and Madison Leonard as Jobs much abused girlfriend Chrisann.  Emily Fons played Jobs's wife Laurene with great sympathy and tenderness.  Because this is an electronic score, the singers need to have their voices amplified.  While purist may amplify their voices in objection, this allows the singers to lower their volume and hence increase their emotional range.  Large and hyperactive, Garrett Sorenson as Jobs's colleague Steve Wozniak was fetching.  The scene in which a young Jobs and Woz stick it to the phone company by inventing a device that allows them to make free phone calls is one of the best scenes in the opera. When Woz later denounces Jobs, Sorenson brings to it all the rage and bitterness of Alberich cursing the ring from Wagner's Das Rheingold.  And that's appropriate because the spirit of Wagner, or Wagnerism at any rate, hovers about Bates's score.
John Moore and Garrett Sorenson (Photo credit: Philip Newton)
But the most impressive performances in the show were by set designer Vita Tzykun, lighting designer Japhy Weideman, and video designers 59 Productions and Benjamin Pearcy. TRSJ is an audio-visual feast.  Six large panels move about the stage, setting up scenes and projecting images.  Sometimes they show tranquil images of mountains at sunrise, at other moments images of circuitry, sometimes the circular ēnso figure from Japanese calligraphy which so enchanted Jobs.  Surrounding the stage are bars of light. These, too, are used to great effect.  When Jobs is fired from Apple the bars of light begin to flicker wildly and the images on the panel go out of focus and seem to break up; the trauma is conveyed to us strictly using Bates's music and audio-visuals. And finally, director Kevin Newbury is to be commended for bringing together all the moving parts in this production so smoothly and effectively.  The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will play at the Seattle Opera until March 9th.
Adam Lau (Photo Credit: Philip Newton)

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