Late in the new opera “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” two events collide with telling force. It’s 2007; Jobs has triumphantly launched the iPhone and yet he’s hollowed out. At home, he denies his exhaustion and serious illness. He admits to his wife, Laurene, he no longer hears music when he makes things.
“Used to,” Jobs utters in a moment of quiet despair.
Hearing music in the flow of creative endeavor is an apt metaphor. Jobs himself loved music, the guitar in particular. Its sweet sound can be heard in the oceanic score Mason Bates has created to tell the story of a modern genius with a mind on fire.
The world premiere of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” is the centerpiece of the Santa Fe Opera’s 61st season. Bates and his collaborator, librettist Mark Campbell, have fashioned a compelling 90-minute production that is cinematic in style and circular in storytelling. The circular structure echoes the Zen Buddhist enso, a calligraphic circle drawn in one brushstroke to symbolize wholeness or enlightenment. Jobs became a Buddhist in adult life, and the symbol reappears in fleeting terms throughout the opera.
The opera begins with a short prologue and unspools from 1965 in the family garage where Jobs has just turned 10. Through 18 scenes moving back and forward in time, key moments in his complicated life are illuminated.
Directed by Kevin Newbury with a deceptively simple shoji-screen set designed by Victoria Tzykun, a double light box opens, expands, multiplies and unfolds to reveal Jobs’ epic life, beginning with the famous garage, “A fine place to start.”
With film projections on sliding screens, the garage illusion swiftly morphs into a college classroom, an orchard, a Zen center, workspaces, a company boardroom and a home kitchen. A spectacular re-creation of a Yosemite wedding magically dissolves into a memorial service that concludes the opera. (Jobs died in 2011 at age 56). Laurene (the magnetic mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke) sings a beautiful soliloquy as a bittersweet echo of childhood briefly appears.
Every aspect of opera’s cabinet of wonders ultimately folds together to create an enormously gratifying experience. Bates’ gorgeous music reaches extraordinary emotional heights combining traditional symphonic colors and patterns with natural sounds and electronica. Campbell’s tight libretto sails forward clearly, alternating moments of confusion, discovery, collision, quietude and enlightenment.
The cast: Bates has created a sound world for each of the principal singers. Baritone Edward Parks evokes Jobs’ determination, bluntness and ever-searching ego with his big, resonant voice and a powerful stage persona. Cooke’s Laurene is a calming center as she sings sonorous lines over string accompaniment. Tenor Garrett Sorenson invigorates Steve Wozniak, Jobs’ partner in discovery and business, over jazzy saxophones. Bass Wei Wu brings both humor and solemnity as Jobs’ Zen mentor Kobun Chino Otogawa. His musical signature is accompanied by shimmering gongs and prayer bowls. And Conductor Michael Christie knits it all together seamlessly with the magical addition of Bates himself in the pit on his Mac.
“Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of the opera,” Bates has said, “which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again.”
Three performances remain in Santa Fe: Aug. 15, 22 and 25, then “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” moves on to productions in 2018 and beyond by cosponsoring companies in San Francisco and Seattle.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theater Critics Association.