A Chip on his Shoulder, More Chips in His Pocket

How long since a world-premiere opera got an instant standing ovation almost five minutes long? With several scenes en route evoking spontaneous applause?

The Berkeley Ph.D. grad Mason Bates pulled it off July 22 with his first such effort, a bio-opera on “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” In portraying the late iPhone creator, warts and all, it spotlighted his unique overdrive personality and headstrong brashness. Often his own worst enemy, the workaholic Jobs drove his coworkers and women in his life as hard as himself, with only his Buddhist teacher Kobun and his own wife Laurene injecting equilibrium into existentialism before the untimely illness and death.

Composer Bates, 40, took a congenial musical path. His “Jobs” is like a Bernstein on LSD-and-chips supplements, hovering between the opera house and Broadway. With himself in the pit at the MacBook controls, he fully integrated an electronic component into a conventional orchestra, constantly fine-tuning tempos to align with the conductor, without a glitch. His music provides moments that are wondrous, ingratiating and diaphonous, giving way now and again to the two women’s lyricism, or to the alarum call of pulse-quickening brass.

The electronic sounds avoid the old sci-fi ooo-aaa’s while gravitating to consonant chords. Singers are given notes and pitches, but arbitrary rhythms to fit their mood. The fears about robotic electronics taking over “Jobs” were misplaced; his music remains human, even vulnerable. Bates also used quasi-Wagnerian leitmotifs for his cast of characters.

The conversational libretto of Mark Campbell used repetition and cadential refrains to great advantage, with the composer inserting touches of rap and minimal minimalism. Humor erupted too, as when Jobs argued with coworkers that where he wanted J.S. Bach, they produced only “flatulent mosquitoes.”

Partnership and breakup were recurrent themes, whether with his engineering colleague Wozniak or with his pregnant girlfriend Chrisann (Jessica E. Jones), who bore him a child that he refused to acknowledge, despite all evidence.

The cast featured operatically trained voices, some amplified. Baritone Edward Parks sings the title role, on stage nonstop after the opening childhood scene, opposite the sympathetic role of the wife Laurene (mezzo Susan Cooke), and the less sympathic and rebuffed Chrisann. The lack of arias limits presenting accurate and moving musical portraits of the individuals. The engineer Wozniak is Garrett Sorenson, while the contrasting speaking role of Kobun the Buddhist priest is Wei Wu. Michael Christie conducted spiritedly. A prize should go to designers of the visuals (Japhy Weideman, Vita Tzykun and 59 Productions) for the infinitely complex chip designs, videos, set moves—-all wrapped up in about 1,001 moment-to-moment cues. Kevin Newbury directed the on-stage traffic.

A recurrent icon in the opera is the circle, first as enso (enlightenment in Buddhist writings), then as Jobs’ fixation on making computers having curves, not corners.

Among the operatic heads in attendance were Matthew Shilvock (SF Opera) and Larry Hancock (Opera San Jose) checking out this new-wave phenomenon. The work will play San Francisco, Seattle and Indiana University, by which time Bates will likely have passed along his MacBook and know-how to other DJs. Nowhere in this show was there mention of Apple or the iPhone.

All the jubilation brought back to mind the caveat of the late San Francisco music critic Alfred Frankenstein a half-century ago. A huge success opening night (in his case, with “Carmina Burana”) is often a troubling sign, he said, foreshadowing rapid satiation and far less public interest in reprises. Will “Jobs” suffer such a fate as well??

With the first three “Jobs” shows virtually sold out before opening night, the SFO has added a seventh, on Aug. 22. Jobs had a unique double posthumous triumph: At the end, first a prolonged ovation, then patrons reaching for their iPhones without hesitation.

“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” Mason Bates’ first opera, at Santa Fe Opera, Crosby Theatre, world premiere. 95 minutes, no intermission. For SFO info: (800) 280-4654, or go online.


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