Steve Jobs: The Opera


Steve Jobs was a cultural icon while still alive, and now he has been translated to the rarified realm of opera. He would probably wince and recoil from this portrayal of him as an intensely flawed human who just happened to transform the world with the iPhone.

To make my engagement with Apple clear, I never found the early version of the Apple/Mac computers appealing, but I did realise before the first iPhone was released that it was going to change my life. I was there to get one on the first day it was released, and now have version 13 in my hands every day. But it is far easier to love the iPhone than it is to love its creator. Indeed, many people who admired in him life would have been hard-pressed to say they loved him. As well, it is easy to blame him for his own early death at age 56 in 2011, as he decided to ignore medical science by treating his cancer with some new-age nonsense. We all wished he had lived longer instead of robbing us of his techno genius.

This opera does not shy away from any of this, and even though it is not presented chronologically, it does naturally conclude with his death. Director of the production, Tomer Zvulun, said to the audience “the most profound thing about the opera is mortality. This success of the piece is not technology, it’s humanity.”

Whether his on-stage apotheosis moves one or not, it is well done in this new stage production by Austin Opera. The original opening night was cancelled due to the ice storm, so I saw the premiere on Feb. 5 at the Long Centre.

I doubt anyone who was not familiar with the life of Jobs and the history of Apple would have fully engaged with the opera. While there were quite a few Millennials and Gen Z people in the audience, few likely knew the backstory well enough to appreciate the production to the max. The good news is that a younger crowd was present, so perhaps this will lead them to a further interest in opera, which has many rich productions over the past 250 years.

Regarding the backstory, the guy who portrays his father, for example, was not his biological father. And who is the Wozniak character we see fiddling around with equipment back in 1975? He actually built the first Apple computer; without him this opera would never have been written. However the technical aspect of this production is the iPhone, which has been truly transformative, but not necessarily in a good way.

Jenny Turner (contributing editor at the London Review of Books) wrote last year that the American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who died in 1990, did not live to see the real power of his techniques for behavioural modification actuated in humans, via phones and networks, at enormous scale. Jobs himself was surely worried about the tech transformation of humans, as even he forbid his children from playing video games.

Librettist Mark Campbell said in a talk after the performance “We have to remember back to the time before there was this one device – when we looked at another person’s face instead of looked at their image on a phone. I worry about the next generation because I worry about the fact they’re not developing their memories – their phone is. I do think if Steve Jobs were alive today he would not be thrilled with how these devices control our lives.”

Speaking of the man, Zvulun said “What’s interesting about Steve Jobs and the opera is that this character is divided. On one hand he is a power-wielding CEO, and the other hand he’s a barefoot hippy; on one hand he is a capitalist, on the other hand he’s a real artist. In the music from the very first moment you can hear this dichotomy. This piece is not about technology, it’s not about this one device (the iPhone), it’s about those two worlds that Steve Jobs straddled, and to walk in the mountains that connect between those two.”

Even though he wrote the words we hear, Mark Campbell said that the music in opera in paramount. “Yes, it was complicated” to write, he said, “but that’s my job! My job is to take a large, very complicated story and make it simple and understandable so that there is room for music. We come to opera for music, not the words. You heard a librettist say that! Often my job is just to get out of the way. Music goes places that words will never be able to go, and that’s why we’re here. The librettist’s job is to create a story – the architecture where the music is allowed to thrive, and grow and pulse.”

About the music, Austin Opera Orchestra conductor Timothy Meyers talked of composer Mason Bates. “It’s a really compact piece of theatre. The thing that happens a lot in this opera is the fact Mason uses a lot of leitmotifs, that’s what we would call a theme that’s associated with a character.” As a character is about to enter the stage, “the texture will change musically, and all of a sudden the mood shifts, and then you hear this little theme associated with every character. When that soundworld starts, it transports you to that other environment. As a conductor we call it pacing: it paces really beautifully, dramatically and musically.” He characterized Mason’s music here as “cinematic.”

Baritone John Moore did a remarkable job at emulating the persona of Steve Jobs, and he was ably supported by mezzo Sarah Larsen (as Lauren Jobs), bass Wei Wu as the Buddhist mentor of Jobs, and tenor Bille Bruley, who truly resembles Steve Wozniak in this fine production, sung in English. Special mention must be made of the technologically inspired set, by Scenic & Costume designer Jacob A. Climer.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be performed one last time in Austin tonight, Feb. 6, 2022. Tickets at Austinopera.org.

Subsequent showings of this opera will be performed by the opera companies of Kansas City and Atlanta. The overall production came from a unique collaboration of all three opera companies, so that the same musical artists can perform in all three venues.

John Moore as Steve Jobs, holding an apple.