Contemporary classical composer, 45-year-old Mason Bates, shaped from his mind a dazzling Grammy Award-winning opera around the life of Steve Jobs, with libretto by Mark Campbell (both of whom were in attendance at opening night). The opera is a wondrous and dramatic entry point for those who don’t think the opera is for them and a groundbreaking path forward for those who have remained comfortable with the traditional trappings of what opera has been. The music is challenging, the stage design is a visual feat, and the opera is thought-provoking.
The show, which runs through May 8, follows the visionary Apple co-founder as he looks back on his life and career, and confronts his own mortality. Directed with striking clarity by Atlanta Opera general and artistic director Tomer Zvulun (who recently discussed the show with ArtsATL), the show hinges on John Moore in the titular role. Moore swings the opera wide and expands it with his energetic and emotive singing. He’s played the role of Steve Jobs previously at the Austin Opera and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
Bille Bruley, in his Atlanta Opera debut, plays Steve Wozniak, Apple’s co-founder. The tenor was flawless. His voice is as crisp and sweet as a Braeburn dusted with cane sugar. Elizabeth Sutphen, also in her Atlanta Opera debut, plays Chrisann Brennan, who had a romantic relationship with Jobs in the early days of Apple and gave birth to his child, Lisa, whom Jobs denied paternity of for years. Sutphen, a coloratura soprano, shone brightly with her agile runs and trills.
Sarah Larsen is riveting in her role as Laurene Powell Jobs, who married Steve Jobs in 1991 and was with him until his death in 2011. Larsen, a mezzo-soprano, grounds the positive and negative energies of Jobs throughout the opera. For all the energy he burns, she’s a smooth river, or the smooth stones beneath. Larsen is a deep and welcomed breath in the maelstrom of industry and enterprise. Adam Lau plays Kobun Chino Otogawa, a Zen priest and Job’s spiritual advisor. Lau is a bass whose singing resonates in every sense of the word.
Buddhism plays a major role in the opera. All well and good, but Jobs doesn’t seem to adhere to principal Buddhist teachings. He takes from it thoughts of simplicity, function, cleanliness, straightforwardness, yet he fails time and again with human interactions.
That said, it feels strange to pay homage to Jobs’ many successes (to note: Bates and Campbell don’t shy away from showing Jobs at his most ugly), when just outside the performance hall, there was a contingent of the Atlanta Opera’s hair and makeup crew protesting against the company for fighting their efforts to unionize (recently discussed on NPR).
It isn’t just Jobs that created Apple. It was countless otherswho long toiled to make Apple what it is. It isn’t just Bates, who has written an incredible soundscape for the opera, but the musicians, sound engineers, and more that bring the score to stage. It isn’t just the Atlanta Opera’s management who gets to showcase an opera that should be seen by as many as possible, for it asks more questions than it answers. It’s also the lighting team, the wardrobe crew, the brilliant set designer, the hair and makeup team and many more.
Perhaps, through the lens of Steve Jobs’ turbulent and spectacular life, we can see our own lives as not denting the universe, but smoothing it out; burnishing it with our own singular and particular talents. To understand each other, beyond our phones and computers. To know that we are not machines, though our attachments to them might tell us otherwise, but simply human.
“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs”
8 p.m. May 6; 3 p.m. May 8. $41-$146. Cobb Energy Center Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Pkwy, Atlanta. 770-916-2852, cobbenergycentre.com
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