The birth of an opera

Thud. Did you feel it? That’s the sound of an opera being turned in.

Last month I sent in all three-hundred pages The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiering this summer at Santa Fe Opera, and rarely have I felt as if such a giant weight was lifted from my shoulders. With both opera lovers and Jobs devotees now grabbing tickets and planning their trips to the high desert, now’s a good time for an update on what this opera is all about.

Over the past few years of composing this piece, I sometimes get asked “Why an opera about Steve Jobs? Well, opera history is full of powerful yet surprising subject matter, from St. Francis to Richard Nixon, and Jobs’ story is beautifully suited for opera. It exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication – and the collision of those topics is something that opera, in particular, can explore.

This piece explodes one of the quintessential operatic techniques, leitmotif – a Wagnerian invention that attaches a theme to a character or idea. With an opera about a man who changed human communication, I wanted to give every character not just a leitmotif, but a soundworld – and see what happens when they collide.

Imagine, for example, the possibilities for bringing to life Kobun, the spiritual advisor to Steve Jobs – an important and overlooked figure who receives stunning treatment by librettist Mark Campbell. A panoply of Tibetan prayer bowls and Chinese gongs drift across the electronics, sometimes sounding purely ‘acoustic,’ sometimes imaginatively processed as if in a nirvana-esque limbo. Think of how beautifully and eerily those sounds can blow across the mystical textures of a low bass voice.

Or imagine the music of Steve Jobs himself : quicksilver textures in both orchestra and electronics, with the latter being built by samples of early Mac gear. His expanded soundworld also includes an acoustic guitar – an instrument whose predecessors appeared quite often in early opera, but one that has scarcely been heard in opera houses since. Jobs loved the guitar, and the energetic sound of finger-picked steel-string will be an interesting way to illuminate the busy inner world a restless man.

In fact, Jobs’ search for inner peace is the story of this opera – which, in a sentence, is about a man who learns to be human again. The key role in this journey is his wife Laurene, who acts as the electrical ‘ground’ to the positive and negative charges of Jobs. His buzzing inner energy made for a visionary of Jesus-like charisma, but he could quickly become a cold tyrant. Laurene is a soulful and strong woman who convinces Jobs of the importance of true human connection, the person who reminds him that people don’t have one button: they are beautifully complicated.

Imagine her slow-moving, oceanic harmonies colliding with the frenetic music of Steve. How does one music impact the other? How do they merge? How can Laurene slow down the busy inner world of Steve? In an opera about a man who revolutionized human communication, this technique of “musical worlds colliding” will be key.

The primary roles in this work – Steve Jobs, Laurene, confidante Steve Wozniak, girlfriend Chrisann, spiritual advisor Kobun – will be associated with highly distinct music. As they interact, their musics will blend almost like on a DJ rig. I’ve always looked to exotic forms to pull new sounds out of me when writing symphonic music – from my ‘energy symphony’ to a new piece about mythological creatures – and for me in opera, that will happen on the level of character.

A crucial inspiration has been the singers who will create these roles, and the creative team that’s bringing the piece to life. Ed Parks is one of the most powerful and clear baritones I’ve heard, and he also has stellar acting skills. While many people know of Ed within the field, he will become a sensation after this piece, which has him onstage almost all the time. Sasha Cooke, our leading lady, has been a singer I’ve been fortunate to hear for many years in San Francisco, whether at the SFS or the opera. Her unique warmth has the power to melt metal, and that’s exactly what she does in this opera.

On the creative side, there’d be no opera without the words of Mark Campbell, who’s created a wonderfully non-linear libretto that so masterfully creates the key characters in Jobs’ life. Director Kevin Newbury has played such an important role in the workshops that have been so crucial to the development of the piece, as has maestro Michael Christie, whose experience in the medium makes him an extremely valuable part of this.

So if you have a few days this July or August, come to Santa Fe Opera. It’s the perfect example of a world-class arts institution in a beautiful, unique setting.