We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017


Ed Parks as Steve Jobs with Santa Fe Opera Chorus

How ironic!  We are sitting here writing about The R(evolution) of Steve Jobs which we saw last night at the Santa Fe Opera; and we are writing on our MacBook because our iMac is home in New York City. Our iPhone is on the table charging even as we write. Our iPad is languishing in our carry-on bag, waiting to entertain us on our trip home. How can one take the measure of a man who has changed our lives so significantly that we cannot imagine surviving without our devices!

Perhaps all we can do to honor such a sea-change is to write about it, play about it, and sing about it. What has been accomplished by the production team for this opera merits all the laudatory words that have been written. What shall we add to the accolades?

Regular readers of this blog will recall how often we denigrate contemporary compositions with their tuneless and abstract music, their wordy unpoetic libretti, and stories that do not lend themselves to musical treatment. None of that is true here. Instead of a story about politics we have a portrait of a fascinatingly inconsistent and puzzling genius who made technology musical, an instrument anyone can play.

In place of sounds masquerading as music, we have composer Mason Bates' eclectic score that seamlessly melds of-the-moment electronics with traditional orchestral music in a manner that honors both genres. Even acoustic guitar, so much a part of Steve Jobs' world, puts in an appearance.

Mark Campbell's libretto is punchy like the English language with short rhythmic phrases, and reminds one of the effective work done for Broadway musicals. It is such an acoustic pleasure to hear words and music acting in harmony, instead of at cross purposes.

In baritone Ed Parks, the opera has found the perfect embodiment of the complicated hero. Every shading of mood was conveyed and we wound up feeling sympathy for this difficult character--a genius troubled by perfectionism, obsessionality, emotional isolation, and narcissism.

As his spiritual guide Kobun, bass Wei Wu created a marvelous character filled with pithy advice delivered with humor. Mr. Mason gave him a splendid aria that would make a superb audition piece for the bass fach. As performed by Mr. Wu, we could understand how he was able to get through to the stubborn Jobs.

The other person who was able to get through to him was his wife Laurene, beautifully sung by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke. Her lengthy eulogy at the end of the opera was filled with insight and sung to some of Mr. Mason's most gorgeous music.

Garret Sorenson employed his tenor most effectively in the role of Jobs' early partner Steve Wozniak. The scene in which they end their partnership was emotionally devastating, as were the two scenes in which Jobs abandons his girlfriend Chrisann Brennan and denies fathering their chid. Apprentice Singer Jessica E. Jones conveyed all the pain and shock of rejection and did so with fine vocal technique.

Apprentice Singer Mariya Kaganskaya used her fine mezzo instrument in the role of a teacher at Reed College, explaining the significance of the "enso", a calligraphic character that inspired Jobs toward simplicity. For us, it seemed to reflect the concept of coming full circle as exemplified by the opera beginning and ending with a scene from Jobs' childhood, a scene in which his father (former Apprentice baritone Kelly Markgraf) initiates the young Jobs (Joshua Sorenson) into the world of making things.

Mr. Mason's score (conducted by Maestro Michael Christie) is eclectic and eminently listenable. Each character was endowed with his/her own sound world. There were passages of minimalism reminiscent of Steve Reich and Phillip Glass, cheek by jowl with lush and lavishly orchestrated passages; so thoroughly integrated were the various elements that nothing seemed out of place. Acoustic guitar, electronic sounds, and instruments of the Far East were woven in and out at appropriate places.

In what Wagner might have called a gesamtkunstwerk, the sets and costumes were all of a piece with the music and libretto. Victoria "Vita" Tzykun filled the stage with tall rectangular pillars that were moved around to create various effects, with the help of projections by 59 Productions. Some scenes seemed to take place inside a computer with projections of a mother board. Others showed the home page of the iPhone.

We loved the scene in which he and Chrisann are dropping acid in an apple orchard (the only reference to "apple" in the opera). Jobs hears the music inherent in nature and is inspired by the idea that a computer can be like an instrument that one plays. This thought served to justify the use of computer sounds in Mason's music and to justify writing music about someone who appears more technological than artistic.  We left with the idea that there is artistry everywhere and that Ms. Tzykun set design showed the artistic side of technology just as Jobs' made technology artistic--witness the fact that we have never been able to discard our first computer--a 1999 "clamshell", so simple and elegant that it overcame our Luddite tendencies.

Director Kevin Newbury kept the action moving along, with the excellent Apprentice Singers in charge of moving the sets around, in addition to performing in such exemplary fashion as the chorus, under the direction of Susanne Sheston.

Paul Carey's costumes were appropriate to time and place. Responsible for Sound Design were Rick Jacobsohn and Brian Loach. What this means in practice is that the voices were subtly amplified; we say "subtly" because the amplification was barely noticeable and the balance between singers and instrumentalists was preserved.

(c) meche kroop

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