One curious aspect of writing an opera about Steve Jobs: he continues to haunt me. Indeed, he continues to haunt everyone. As the creative team and cast rehearse The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs in preparation for its premiere this summer at Santa Fe Opera, we find his presence inescapable. Most of this opera has been created on his computers, most of communication relayed through his devices. In fact, most people reading this – and on this planet – probably feel a strange kinship with a man who impacts us daily. Just check your pocket.
The sleekness of the devices Jobs created – which we all carry like miniature monoliths – underscores a fundamental tension in 21st Century life: how do we simplify human communication on such beautifully minimalist devices – when people are so messy?
This tension exploded in Jobs’ own life. In both his work and his life, he strove to hide all the ugly wires with sensual exteriors. Whether it be the cancer he tried to control through diets, the refusal to acknowledge his first daughter, or his imperious management style, Jobs sought to control his life as forcefully as he did his software. But as Jobs learned, life doesn’t have one button.
That tension is the stuff of opera.
This medium can get to the essence of his story in unique ways. Unlike film or literature, opera has the ability to present many characters’ thoughts simultaneously. Themes weave together, disparate musics collide. A dramatic version of this approach, which is a kind of extreme version of Wagnerian leitmotif, is essential in an opera about a man who revolutionized human communication. The primary roles in this work – Steve Jobs, his wife Laurene, confidante Steve Wozniak, girlfriend Chrisann, spiritual advisor Kobun – are associated with highly distinct music. As they interact, their musics will blend almost like on a DJ rig.
The other reason that Jobs’ story is so well suited to opera: it’s a non-representational medium. A poetic approach can illuminate a story in deep ways. For example, Mark Campbell’s masterful libretto presents the story in kinetically non-linear, almost ‘pixelated’ manner. Any one of these short scenes seen own its own, like a single pixel, is but a flicker of light. But arranged together, these pixels animate an image, a life. The juxtapositions that occur in this kind of storytelling help us understand a man who transformed from a hippy in an apple orchard to a mogul at the helm of the world’s most valuable company.
Indeed, new storytelling techniques are a part of every element of this piece. The electro-acoustic score not only animates the inner music of Jobs, but also that of his spiritual advisor Kobun – a key figure in Jobs’ life-long search for inner peace. Unlike the quicksilver electronics and acoustic guitar that run underneath Jobs, the sound of Kobun is calm and mystical. Prayer bowls, gongs, and chimes swirl through the electronics whenever he is on stage. Other characters, such as the key figure of Laurene, are illustrated very differently. She’s oceanic strings and grounded harmonies, since she represents the ‘ground’ between the positive and negative charges of Jobs.
The production continues this new storytelling. The opera opens in the early garage of Steve Jobs and his adoptive father, but soon the walls of the garage fly apart and become projection surfaces that form a kaliedosopic range of spaces. These giant panels are a beautiful collision of 21st Century technology and old stagecraft. Each looming panel is invisibly moved by people, yet each one has tracking technology that allows high-definition projections to continuously project images upon it while moving in all directions. This tracking technology, developed in motion-capture for films, has not yet been explored in this medium.
This dynamic set us to tumble spaces seamlessly into other and deepen the narrative. For example, if you look carefully on the shelves of Jobs’ boyhood garage, you see all the components that would later be transformed by the iPhone: a projector, a telephone, an 8-track player, a camera. When the walls of the garage fly apart, we see Jobs in 2007 holding the first iPhone at its launch.
Technology, in fact, has always been an important element of opera, as well as the orchestra. After all, pyrotechnics and moving scenery were the Lucasfilm of their age. But all of these new techniques, from music to libretto to production, are in the service of the story, and this story is about a man who rediscovers what it means to be human. That journey is guided by his wife, Laurene, who so crucially acted as the ‘ground’ between the positive and negative charges of Jobs.
From the moment he began tinkering in his Los Altos garage, Steve Jobs looked to a future where computers would change the way we interact, where these devices would become as friendly as pets. But in changing our world, he changed too – and sometimes forgot that life is not as streamlined as his devices.
His journey to rediscovering true human connection is the story of this opera, and I invite you to come experience it at Santa Fe Opera.