Santa Fe company commissions an iOpera: Should there be an app for that?

August 07, 2015
By Charles T. Downey

Steve Jobs

Santa Fe Opera celebrates its 60th anniversary in 2016, when the season will focus on three great operas of the 20th century: Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, Strauss’s Capriccio, and Samuel Barber’s Vanessa.

Although next summer will not feature a world premiere, the company announced Wednesday that American composer Mason Bates will create a new opera in Santa Fe, in collaboration with librettist Mark Campbell for the 2017 season.

The subject of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, of course, is the late co-founder of a little company called Apple. You may have heard of him. In a coincidence appropriate to the nexus of art and industry, if you try to type the title of the new opera into a word processing program, the (R) autocorrects to the symbol for trademark.

Members of the press, myself included, played our expected part in the marketing dance by taking to Twitter and publishing pieces about how stupid or brilliant this idea sounded. The choice of subject was clever in terms of publicity, to be sure, proven by the range of notices the announcement has received, far beyond classical music publications. The Santa Fe Opera press release wrote breathlessly of a “journey into the life and legacy of a distinctly American figure” that “seeks to capture the buzzing creative realm of Silicon Valley with a kinetic electro-acoustic score.”

My, how trendy. Sure, composers have made gorgeous operas out of material with less apparent dramatic potential than the life and technological innovation of Steve Jobs. We do not know much about the work yet, but the press release describes an opera that involves Jobs, facing his own mortality, looking “back to the events and people in his past that shaped and inspired him.” Most of the operas that remain powerful today deal with mythology, ancient history, fantasy, and the unexpected or surreal. Your iPhone may be a very important part of your life, but is it the stuff of opera?

This is not to say that Bates and Campbell cannot make an interesting, even great opera on such a story, which remains to be seen and heard in 2017. My complaint has more to do more with the obvious, facile choices of the recent commissions at Santa Fe Opera, which have not been, shall we say, all that good. All seemed targeted, not to say calculatingly so, to hot-button issues, easy to publicize: marriage equality (Oscar), the rise of China (Dr. Sun Yat-sen), and now the face of everyone’s favorite technological gadgets.

Maybe The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will turn out to be a great opera, but the trend for new works at Santa Fe Opera in recent years has not been promising.

Charles T. Downey is a freelance writer on music and roving summer festival reporter. The rest of the year he lives in Washington, D.C., where he writes reviews for the Washington Post and moderates, a Web site on classical music and the arts. 

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