It was not the project that Mark Campbell had been dreaming about.
“It was actually Mason Bates, the composer, who suggested the idea of Steve Jobs as an opera,” recalled Campbell, a librettist whose earlier work received a Pulitzer Prize in Music. “And I went, ‘Oh God, no.’ Because my impression of Steve Jobs at that point was not very good … there were some very bad aspects of this man and I had only known about those.”
However, Campbell said as he researched the life of the Apple co-founder, he found his way into the story. And he realized, “Mason was right. This is a good subject for an opera.”
The resulting combination of Campbell’s words and Bates’ music receives its West Coast premiere this month when Seattle Opera stages “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” The opera jumps around in time — from Jobs as a kid in 1965 to his death at age 56 in 2011 — while Jobs revisits formative memories as he faces his mortality. Each scene highlights what Campbell said is, “a different aspect of Steve Jobs and how we was informed by some of these events.”
The opera already reached a milestone this month when the album of the original 2017 production by the Santa Fe Opera won the Grammy for Best Opera Recording, after receiving three award nominations. And for those concerned that “opera” is a cruel euphemism for being locked in a windowless building hours on end without a bathroom in sight, the Seattle production runs a taut 85 minutes with no intermission — in part, perhaps, a nod to the short attention spans inspired by Apple’s iPhones and iPads.
Campbell, along with director Kevin Newbury and baritone John Moore, who portrays Jobs, recently sat down with me for a public program at Seattle Opera’s new Opera Center to discuss turning Jobs’ life, with all of its flawed brilliance, into operatic art.
Not surprisingly, all three are Apple users. “I learned the entire role — audio and obviously the score — on my iPad,” said Moore. “I control my playlist on my watch. I use AirPods in my ears … Steve Jobs is more a part of my life than anyone else in a way.”
Campbell’s affinity for Apple, despite his earlier misgivings about the co-founder, goes back decades. “I had my first Macintosh in 1984 and it was on the kitchen table in my little East Village studio. And it was a marvel. I mean, I used to work in advertising and design, so I was just really attracted to this beautiful machine,” he said.
What’s especially fascinating, Newbury said, is the combination of who Jobs was and what he was able to create. “There’s never been a single gadget or piece of art or technology that contains so much information about who we are, the kind of black mirror of our soul that is our phone and computer,” he said. “And so, how did that man think?”
The production doesn’t pretend to be a word-by-word recitation of what actually happened in Jobs’ life — as matter of fact, the libretto plainly notes it’s not “authorized or endorsed” by Apple or the Jobs estate. Yet, “everything is based on a real event,” Campbell said. “The calligraphy class really happened. The taking acid in the field happened. Did Chrisann (Brennan, Jobs’ girlfriend) interrupt Woz (co-founder Steve Wozniak) and Steve while they were making the first board? No, probably not, but that’s drama … it is all based on fact.”
Still, creating a work of art for a form where longevity is measured in centuries, not smartphone upgrade cycles, did require Campbell to think hard about what to leave out.
“We decided really early on not to mention any products by name,” he said. “We talk about the iPhone in the first song — the first big number is a product launch — but we don’t say ‘the iPhone.’ We don’t talk about the Apple One computer or anything like that. That would kind of date the language.”
Even Apple’s corporate nemesis gets the silent treatment. Microsoft is only referred to as “Seattle” or “the big M.”
The production itself is a character, as well, “fundamental to the storytelling,” Newbury said. “The goal with the production, like the Apple products themselves, was to create something that was entirely seamless, where the form and content and function and artistry were hopefully completely married and inseparable from one another.” That, he said, means for the single act opera, it flows so, “you can’t really tell what’s video, what’s lighting, what’s design, what’s choreography, because the whole production moves as one unit.”
But if you get the impression that creating an opera about a cult figure turned pop culture icon means simply lionizing the Apple co-founder, the light and dark are on stage. It’s not primarily about Jobs as technology’s mythic hero.
“Put aside this myth, and what is he feeling toward Laurene (Powell Jobs, his wife) right now on his second date with her?,” Campbell said. “How is he maybe falling apart inside because he loves her? That’s what you do. It’s a human story.”
“It’s about a human being trying to grapple with being a genius and being understood and misunderstood,” Newbury said.
Recurring through the opera, Moore says, is failure. “We get to see how Steve fails at love. He fails at business. We get to see him fail so that we can check on some of those things in a way that’s more human than just, ‘Steve was a jerk and Apple wasn’t working,'” Moore said. “I just think that really diminishes him.”
Moore hopes the opera resonates with those who are represented in it. “If anyone shows up to this opera, it’s going to be Woz. For sure Wozniak would check in here and be, ‘I want to see what they made,'” he said.
There’s one more person he’d like to see. “I would love to be coming out of the stage door and this woman is sort of hanging out on the side, and she comes over and grabs me,” Moore said. “And it’s Laurene Jobs. The dream, to have her say, ‘thank you.'”
(“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” runs from Feb. 23 to Mar. 9 at McCaw Hall in Seattle.)