Blog article on Steve Jobs

Circling Around Steve Jobs

To Steve Jobs we owe much that defines modern life—not just the iPhones, iPods, iPads, and iMacs that transformed how we gather and communicate information, but also the engineering, the packaging, and even the attitudes that changed those once onerous and time-consuming tasks into bursts of instant gratification. But who, really, was he? He was certainly a genius, a whiz-bang engineer, a prodigy of commerce, and a social visionary. Yet, as we look into his life and lore, he emerges as more nuanced than that. He could be a malevolent monster in his personal and professional dealings, leaving a trail of roadkill as he careered down the highway of his life. Inwardly, he yearned for human comfort he was ill-equipped to accept. He sought to boost the metaphysical side of his life but was often frustrated when his personality and ambition impeded his spiritual goals. Hamlet said it of his own father: “He was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.” So it is with every mortal, but in Steve Jobs the contradictions stood in unusually high relief. He was a hero and a villain, a success and a failure. From this bundle of paradox emerges a character we might indeed describe as operatic.

Librettist Mark Campbell was not immediately entranced when composer Mason Bates floated the idea of collaborating on a Steve Jobs opera. His reticence was not to be underestimated. He had by then written some 25 opera librettos for a host of notable composers; one of them, Silent Night, had won a Pulitzer Prize when set to music by Kevin Puts. In contrast, it would be Bates’ first opera. Although Campbell knew and admired a number of Bates’ pieces, the composer was not quite the star he is today; he had been championed by the San Francisco Symphony and had fulfilled a prestigious term as composer-in-residence at the Chicago Symphony but was just on the brink of becoming the first-ever composer-in-residence at the Kennedy Center of the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Still, the more Campbell dug into the subject, the more he felt that Bates’ operatic instincts were on target, and the possibilities for their collaborative work came into focus. In the summer of 2015, Santa Fe Opera announced that it had commissioned The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (by then in progress), leading a consortium that would include Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera, with support from Cal Performances. Two years later, the opera was introduced to rapturous audience response in the tech-infused terrain of northern New Mexico, with the lights of Los Alamos National Laboratory glittering in the distance behind the open-backed stage.

At heart, though, the opera tells a California story, a chapter in a long-running saga of scientific innovation and commercialization. This has been played out time and again in the state’s history: quick-as-lightning entrepreneurism accompanying the Gold Rush, advances in radio and electrical engineering in the early 20th century, capitalizing on sound and film technology for the movie industry, defense innovation during World War II and its subsequent adaptation for civilian use, the rise of personal computing and the high-tech boom of Silicon Valley. That last locale is well known to Bates, who moved to the Bay Area in 2001 to earn his Ph.D. in composition from the University of California, Berkeley, and gained a local following as a DJ in the club scene and as a composer in concert venues.

Silicon Valley is also where The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs begins and ends, in the Jobs family’s garage in Los Altos. The opera moves vigorously through 18 scenes (not counting a prologue, epilogue, overture, and four interludes), touching down in and around San Francisco, Cupertino, Palo Alto, Yosemite National Park, and one out-of-state locale—Reed College in Portland, Oregon, which numbers Jobs among its dropouts. The scenes in this 90-minute work are short, mostly running from three to five minutes (though one reaches to 12), each offering a fleeting fragment of a chronicle that tells the parallel—or sometimes overlapping—stories of Jobs’ personal and professional journey. Most operas are built out of standalone scenes, to be sure, sometimes laid out almost as if in real time (say, Tosca), sometimes hewing to a more episodic structure in which moments from the protagonists’ lives seem plucked almost at random from a longer span (think La bohème). The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is more of the La bohème sort, but being a thoroughly modern piece, it pushes the narrative envelope further. It unrolls through most of a lifetime, from the moment when 10-year-old Steve receives a workbench as a birthday present (“a fine place to start,” says his father) to his memorial service 46 years later. What’s more, the story is not laid out chronologically. It is as if Campbell wrote each chapter of the tale on its own index card … and then shuffled the deck.

The result could have been confusing, but it comes across as logical and unambiguous in performance. A viewer’s mind has no trouble imagining the real-life sequence of events even though they are presented through flashbacks and leaps forward, and the unusual structure adds a particular flavor to the telling. Instead of presenting Job’s life as an inevitable historic progression, the libretto may suggest that all the strands of his life were there all the time, that the life itself was the twinkling refractions of his multifaceted being simultaneously rolled into one. A boy giving rein to scientific curiosity, a student intrigued by spiritual enlightenment, an adult succeeding or failing at relationships, a man unveiling momentous inventions—each facet emerges with a sort of equality.

This clarity was achieved through the forces of art. Bates helps orient the listener within this discontinuous storyline through recurrent, role-specific sound-worlds that he has described as somewhat analogous to Wagner’s leitmotifs. Jobs is characterized by a mercurial blend of orchestra and whirring electronica (a Bates specialty), often with an overlay of acoustic guitar, as at the opera’s outset. His wife, Laurene, is accompanied by stately “oceanic harmonies,” his girlfriend Chrisann by flutes, his business partner Steve Wozniak by saxophones, his Buddhist mentor Kо̄bun Chino Otogawa by gongs, Tibetan singing bowls, and the veiled tones of an alto flute.

An essential unifying device in this opera is the image of the circle. It appears most prominently in the form of the ensо̄, a calligraphic ring drawn daily in one stroke or two as a Zen exercise. In the opera, we witness Jobs learning about it in a college class and later pondering it under the guidance of Kо̄bun, a deeply sympathetic character. The fact that the ensо̄ is hand-drawn guarantees that it will be a flawed circle; reflecting its human creation, it will fall short of perfect execution. This goes to the crux of Jobs’ tragic flaw, or perhaps his heroism—the distance separating idealized vision from human capacity. But circles appear elsewhere, too: in apples (a whole orchard of them, at one point), in projected icons of apps, in an Apple computer case, the sun, his girlfriend’s pregnant belly, a meditation maze. Even the title’s typography seems to derive from the image. The word “(R)evolution” invites an open-ended interpretation involving the revolution or evolution Jobs wrought in the world or in himself; but, visually, the parentheses embrace the R like a two-stroke ensо̄. “We start at nothing, Return to nothing,” sings Kо̄bun. “The circle ends where it was begun.” And so at the opera’s conclusion we bid farewell to the same 10-year-old birthday boy we met at the beginning—one we have come to understand “for all and all,” a man more successful at humanizing the computer than at humanizing the complex being that was Steve Jobs.

James M. Keller is the long-time Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. As former critic-at-large for the Santa Fe New Mexican, he covered the creation of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

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