What a new opera about Steve Jobs says about the human spirit

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It’s been more than five years since Apple co-founder Steve Jobs passed away.  But his impact continues to be felt—in California’s hi-tech business and for many of us in our daily lives.

Jobs’ life and career have been the focus of films and many books.  Now it’s the subject of a new opera called “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”

The piece premiered at the Santa Fe Opera.

KCRW talked to Mason Bates,  the composer in residence at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and composer of “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”

Mason Bates: You know so many people are so surprised when they hear about Steve Jobs as the subject of an opera. Opera history seems like it’s all about tales of lover’s long paths, that kind of thing; how can we tell a story about technologists? But once you look at his life, you realize it really is the stuff of opera. It’s got passion, it’s got obsession, it’s got love, it’s got death, redemption. Essentially, the basic tension of his life is –  between these sleek, beautiful devices that he created, and the complexity, the messiness of life –  that I think all of us are having a hard time pressing that one button on life. It doesn’t really work that way. And the devices that he created have simplified our communication, but there is so much about human life that doesn’t simplify. And to be honest with you, I don’t think a representational medium like film can really get at the emotional essence of a story the way opera can.

KCRW: Do you feel that opera intrinsically allows you to delve deeper, get more to the heart in a way that another art form can’t?

MB: I do. Think about film, which I love, we all love film. But it’s deceptively representational. When you look at a film, they look like real people, they are speaking in normal ways, they’re not singing. But it’s squashed an entire story into two hours, and the inevitable tension between the representational medium and the fact that it’s a hyper-dramatized medium, can make it challenging in getting at a real story like this. Opera can explore people in a very deep way, I think precisely because it can be more poetic. Nobody goes around singing in life, so there is no suspension of disbelief, this is the medium and we are going to just kind of experience it. The other thing is that opera, because it can use music to represent different peoples inner thinking, and represent the way they speak and communicate, you can tell the story of a man who changed communication unlike any other.

KCRW: Some people might have thought, ‘I’m telling the story of a high tech visionary, so the music should be all electronic.’ And you’ve done a wonderful job of weaving the sounds of typing on a keyboard, of tapping into the music, and there are other electronic elements, but you do have traditional musical instruments, why?

MB: This story is about a creative technologist; obviously we are going to have electronic sounds in the piece, because that is something that has been a part of my symphonic writing for decades. But the bigger story is about not products, but humanity, and what we as humans have to learn from the changes that technology is bringing to us. While we open with sounds of a Mac Plus clicking, and we hear Mac hard drives booting up, and they’re kind of integrated into this electronic sound world. By the time we finish the piece, there are no electronics in the last 20 minutes. Because we need to go to that soulful space of the human spirit, and that’s the real journey of this opera.

KCRW: Do you see Steve Jobs as a modern icon, his life as being a symbol of something bigger for all of us?

MB: I do. I think we are all dealing with the central tension of his life. Between the sleek minimalism of his devices, and the beautiful messiness of life that can’t really be contained in them. And, I think as an artist I can relate to his desire for perfection, so much that I can be a control freak and lean on orchestral players, or lean on the director of the opera to get it right, and I have to be reminded sometimes that the connection between a beautiful vision of artistic perfection and the negative side of trying to micromanage people as if they are machines, it’s a very short walk. I think anybody who has a passion, and who has to deal with people to realize their passion, can relate to Steve Jobs, even if they didn’t invent the iPhone.