Santa Fe Opera crashes with Bates’ musically inert “(R)evolution of Steve Jobs”

August 05, 2017
By Charles T. Downey
Andrew Parks as Steve Jobs and Garrett Sorenson as Steve Wozniak in Mason Bates' "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

Edward Parks as Steve Jobs and Garrett Sorenson as Steve Wozniak in Mason Bates’ “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” at Santa Fe Opera. Photo: Ken Howard

The focus of this season at Santa Fe Opera is the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the first opera composed by Mason Bates. When the company announced, two years ago, that it was commissioning an opera about the co-founder of a certain tech company, it caused a press furor. Here was news from the opera world crossing impossible barriers and getting notice in tech magazines and on morning television shows.

A cynic might even have thought that the choice of the new opera’s subject was expressly for that purpose. Judging by the performance on Friday night, the strategy paid off, with an audience primed for a success, no matter what happened on stage. The company has even added an extra performance to the end of the run, in response to the demand for tickets.

At about ninety minutes without intermission, the opera felt much longer while seeming to cater to limited, smartphone-induced attention spans.

Santa Fe Opera’s best possible presentation could not overcome the jejune score, a series of pleasant instrumental effects and simple songs strung together with some electronic beats, provided by Bates himself at his laptop in front of the conductor’s podium. As in much of Bates’s music, pulsating ostinati and Latin-inspired offbeat rhythms powered a limited harmonic and melodic palette.

The failure should hardly come as a surprise, as this is the first time that Bates has composed an opera. Unfortunately, this is now officially a trend at Santa Fe Opera, which has shone its powerful commissioning spotlight on first-time opera composers for some time now: Jennifer Higdon’s Cold Mountain (2015), Theodore Morrison’s Oscar (2013), and Paul Moravec’s The Letter (2009), all written by composers who were novices at opera and all arguably duds. The last world premiere at Santa Fe Opera by a composer who had written an opera previously was Bright Sheng’s Madame Mao in 2003.

Worse, Bates had not even had much experience writing for solo voices. His recent work Passage, composed for the National Symphony Orchestra’s JFK centennial celebrations at the Kennedy Center, also written for Sasha Cooke, was not promising. Going forward, Santa Fe Opera may want to be more selective and use its precious commissioning dollars on a composer who has already had some success in vocal music and knowledge of the opera genre.

Further, Mark Campbell’s libretto is dramatically inert, with no crisis or denouement in a series of often insignificant, brief scenes out of chronological order, piled high with hackneyed short lines in snappy rhythms. The basic premise is reminiscent of any number of bad romantic comedies: Steve Jobs was selfish and irritating, but then he bonded with his wife and an unwanted child and he became a really nice guy. That sentimental claptrap is the “evolution” part, which is overlapped with the “revolution” part, where he helped design some world-changing technological products.

There were some fine singers in the cast yet Bates’ score required amplification to balance them with the instruments and his patented electronica, which flattened out the sound of their voices. (The monochrome sound design was by Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach.)

Consequently, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke lost a good part of the warmth of her voice as Steve’s wife, Laurene, a steadying presence represented by soothing strings in the score. Wei Wu’s extraordinary bass was underutilized in the role of Kōbun Chino Otogawa, Jobs’s Zen spiritual mentor who served as the guiding presence in the opera. Continuing with the theme of musical cliches, breathy alto flute and Asian percussion accompanied Otogawa’s music.

Baritone Edward Parks bore a remarkable resemblance to Jobs, especially costumed in his trademark black turtleneck and jeans. James Moore, playing amplified guitars in two different tunings, provided the active pulse for the Jobs scenes. Vocally the often-covered Parks was outshone by most of his colleagues, including in the duets with the vibrant tenor Garrett Sorenson as Jobs’s undersung collaborator Steve Wozniak, signaled by the syncopated licks of two alto saxophones.

Kelly Markgraf sang well in two unnecessary scenes as Jobs’s adoptive father, Paul, at the beginning and end of the opera. Apprentices filled in the other supporting roles, with soprano Jessica E. Jones capably handling a few coloratura challenges as Chrisann, the girlfriend who bore Jobs a daughter, whom he belatedly recognized. A mid-sized chorus, almost always singing in homophonic chords, came off as a horde of adoring zombies, their faces often illuminated by the consuming glow of their smartphones. Conductor Michael Christie held these various strands together with broad gestures.

Kevin Newbury directed a streamlined, technologically savvy staging, in keeping with the design of the electronic devices that made Jobs a wealthy man. Large wooden boxes rolled about the mostly empty stage (scenic design by Victoria “Vita” Tzykun) to form the different configurations of garage, home, office, Zen center, and so on. These served as screens for over-active, almost seizure-inducing, projections (designed by 59 Productions) that added, perhaps appropriate, electronic distraction.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs runs through August 25.

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