San Francisco Opera | Meet Mason Bates, the composer behind the turntable

Meet Mason Bates, the composer behind the turntable

There’s a degree of mystique surrounding the combination of unlike things — and composer Mason Bates’ fusion of classical music and electronica is no exception. It’s a recipe that’s won him acclaim and even a Grammy: His opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, nabbed the 2019 prize for best opera recording.

But Bates, who hails from a farm in Richmond, Virginia, sees more similarities than differences. Both styles rely on instrumentals. Both require precision. And both make use of emerging technology to create ever more piercing visions of beauty.

Now, with Steve Jobs headed to the San Francisco Opera stage in June 2020, Bates shares a glimpse at his creative process — and the works that inspire him most.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Steve Jobs is such a contradictory and controversial figure. What drew you to this man — and what was your mental calculus when deciding to devote your first opera to him?

MASON BATES: The life of Steve Jobs is the stuff of opera. Passion, love, betrayal, obsession, death –these elemental forces are at work on every level of Jobs' extraordinary life, and the operatic stage can explore them like no other medium.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What has been the reaction from the tech community to seeing Steve Jobs’ life immortalized in opera?

BATES: While the opera had a marvelous premiere run at Santa Fe Opera, the work hadn't appeared in a 'tech city' until it went to Seattle Opera earlier this year. We were grateful to see the work embraced by a community filled with creative technologists, many of whom appreciate that Steve Jobs appears as both protagonist and antagonist in this opera. Jobs had a positive and negative charge; the ground – that was Laurene.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: How has the opera changed since its premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2017?

BATES: Librettist Mark Campbell and I reexamined the role of Laurene Jobs to bring her into focus a bit earlier. Laurene was the key figure in Jobs' life and is the essential figure in this opera.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What has been the most eye-opening musical experience you’ve ever had, and why?

BATES: Some of the most memorable musical experiences are the intimate ones. I sat around a campfire and heard Kix Brooks and three collaborators work through some country and bluegrass tunes, quietly listening to these Jedi knights rehearse. The folk community possesses such an astonishing combination of soulful music-making and virtuosic chops. On a larger scale, one of the most stunning musical experiences I've ever had was Les Troyens at SF Opera. That piece is audacious in so many ways, and mounting it is one of the greatest challenges in theatrical history. SFO stepped up!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: You’re known for bringing classical music into the world of electronica — a technique you employ to breathe life into the computer-driven world of Steve Jobs. Have you ever encountered resistance to that style of composing, as if you were somehow desecrating the classics?

BATES: There's often some resistance before the first rehearsal, but that dissipates once musicians start playing the music. The key is integrating the electronics into the orchestra, as if it's a new section. Musicians appreciate that I am an evangelist about the power of orchestras!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What do you envision the future of opera to be?

BATES: The future of opera is unfolding before us. New works are premiering in increasing frequency in houses such as San Francisco Opera, Philadelphia Opera, Minnesota Opera, Santa Fe Opera and even the Met. Composers such as Missy Mazzoli, David Little, and Kevin Puts are creating some very substantive contributions to the rep. I'd like to continue to explore the possibilities of integrating digital technology into both audio and visuals, always with the goal of vivid storytelling. 




San Francisco Opera staff partner with Violins of Hope, Strings of the Holocaust, for music series from January 16 – March 15