And So It Begins: An Opera Premiere

A surprising document appeared in my inbox a few days ago: a copy of a letter I wrote in 2000 to my manager Monica Felkel at Young Concert Artists. Writing just after graduating from Juilliard, I alluded to meeting “Brad, who is number 2 at Santa Fe Opera and currently in charge of new productions, commissions, etc … he requested some music and materials.”

Over the seventeen years since then, that seed became a tree that, just a few weeks ago, bore fruit with the premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Many visits to this wonderful opera house ensued, initially to see world premieres but eventually to see just about anything. Jobs may appear to be a first theatrical endeavor by a symphonic composer and DJ, but in fact it is the result of many years of hard work and false starts. Here are some thoughts about the process of bringing this piece to life over the past month.

First of all, many people do not realize how long I have dreamed of an opera premiere. My career has appeared to focus on electro-acoustic symphonic works, which are highly informed by my work as DJ (which also has impacted my role as a curator with institutions from the Chicago Symphony to the Kennedy Center). But I’ve always fixated with special passion on opera, the only artform to unify so much theatrical media simultaneously. And as the narrative nature of my symphonic work indicates, I’ve always been interested in telling new, wild stories with music.

Several embryonic works led to this moment, from a medieval mystery play produced at Juilliard to an opera about a California writer spiraling into personal crisis workshopped in Aspen. (That latter work was presented to Brad about ten years ago; the polite response was I think you’ll have something else.) Those experiences taught me some important lessons: first of all, find a resonant topic; and then, find a world-class librettist.

Mark Campbell took on the challenge I laid out to him with an opera about Steve Jobs, which he had some initial ambivalence about. But he quickly fell in love with the complex, duel protagonist-and-antagonist role of Steve Jobs, and then (just as importantly) with the soulful figure of Laurene Jobs and the mystical character of Kobun, the Buddhist spiritual advisor to Jobs. Mark’s libretto is a master of new storytelling, with a non-linear form tethered by rock-solid dramatic themes.

During the premiere process, Mark and I became something of an old married couple, working out issues behind closed doors and then going to the creative team as a solid unit. After years of this opera living in our heads, it started to come to life in staging rehearsals run by gifted director Kevin Newbury. Whenever I had a question about a particular piece of staging or direction, I’d whisper into Mark’s ear for a quick consultation. Does Jobs really need to wear a single black turtleneck throughout the show? Is it clear when this scene takes place? Is Laurene too static during the fiery argument scene? Mark and I would quietly work out our issues and then, as a unit, take our concerns to the team. I never wanted any daylight between me and Mark during rehearsals; there’s simply too much going on to have competing opinions between librettist and composer.

As we got into the dress rehearsals, Santa Fe Opera constructed a special ladder that I could ascend from the pit, where I am stationed with my electronic gear, so I could check balance in the hall and watch staging unfold. (SFO has a unique moat that runs between pit and audience – a kind of “fourth wall” stream – and I felt like I was passing through a theatrical portal every time I went over it.) Many times I would run out and have a quick chat with Mark and Kevin, giving feedback from fresh eyes.

Kevin Newbury was the perfect director to bring this piece to life. He is a master at assembling a strong design team. Due to the subject matter of this show, we needed a dazzling, high-tech production that would take as through time and space in a unique way. He brought in production designer Vita Tzykun, who created a mesmerizing series of lighted panels that glide around the stage, along with lighting designer Japhy Weideman and projectionist Ben Pearcy. I learned a great deal watching these four people work at each tech rehearsal, which in Santa Fe occur in the wee hours of the night. Lighting storms would play out in the desert behind the stage while, onstage, the magic of stagecraft would unfold.

The biggest question for me was about pacing and clarity. Could I unfurl ninety minutes of drama in an elegantly executed arc? Would the most important elements be perceived amidst all the glorious detail of orchestration, lighting, and theater?

In symphonic premieres, sometimes the sensation of oversaturation settles upon me. In your head or in the safety of your studio, a particular melody or sonority might be the musical focus; but amidst the swirling of eighty other instruments, ideas can get lost. Carefully composing clear, cravable ideas that are transparently orchestrated is the obvious solution, but you have to take risks in order to continue to develop as an artist. Risk-taking means that some things might not work and need adjusting. In an opera, the listener is buried by so much information – music, words, staging – that oversaturation is one of the greatest risks.

There were many, many adjustments made to the orchestration and electronics in the rehearsal process. Creating little windows of silence around specific words was one solution; another was to omit unnecessary over-doubling of the voice; and still another was to whittle-down the volume of accompaniment. The principal singers were especially helpful on this front. Sasha Cooke, our star mezzo-soprano, had just premiered my Passage at the Kennedy Center, so we had a very efficient process. The amazing Ed Parks was a great collaborator, and I made quite a lot of adjustments to Steve Jobs’ big “vision aria” so that the aria would fit him like a glove. I found ways to have the orchestra appear and disappear rapidly around his soaring lines.

There have been many other crucial players in this premiere. Maestro Michael Christie provided crucial suggestions from the beginning. From suggesting vocal space around certain words or balance adjustments within the orchestra, Michael has become a true partner. My music distributor Noah Luna provided key on-the-ground help with orchestral parts. Sound designer Rick Jacobson successfully juggled two dozen mic’s, three guitars, and my circus act of electronic sounds. My ears in the hall were on the head of conductor Ryan Haskins, who continues to give me highly detailed info about electronic and orchestral balance. Assistant director James Daniel and choreographer Chloe Treat were essential collaborators in getting those giant monoliths to dance onstage.

We’re not even halfway through the run. An additional show was added to accommodate the demand, something I didn’t even know was possible, so I’ll be in Santa Fe a little more than I expected this month. Which is fine with me, because I’ve fallen in love with this enchanted town and its superb opera house.