Steve Jobs subject of new Atlanta Opera production

Credit: Austin Opera

Credit: Austin Opera

Tomer Zvulun creates new production with Austin, Kansas City operas.

For “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” an opera about the life of arguably the most famous computer innovator of all time, adaptability is the key to longevity.

The first run of the 2017 opera by composer Mason Bates, with a libretto by Mark Campbell, at the Santa Fe Opera sold out. The next year brought a cast recording. To give an opera a life beyond this initial success necessitated some streamlining. Enter Tomer Zvulun, general and artistic director of the Atlanta Opera, who created a new production suitable for travel.

This reimagining meant leaving behind some of the massive structures created for the initial run in favor of scenery that could easily be packed up and shipped out to the next opera company. Atlanta Opera co-produced “(R)evolution” with the Austin Opera and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, where this production got its debut in March. Zvulun’s new production, conducted by Michael Christie, comes to Atlanta Opera starting April 30.

“It feels both bigger than the original production, but it’s also simpler in a lot of ways,” Bates said. “It’s simple enough, in terms of under-the-hood stuff, to be done in a lot of different places. As a composer, I’m always eager for a piece to go as many places as it can. This opera has to have a production that feels technological and whizbang, and I think it does both of those things.”

“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs” conveys the origin story, successes, struggles and legacy of Apple founder Steve Jobs (baritone John Moore) in a nonlinear narrative. Everyone from his wife (mezzo soprano Sarah Larsen) to his Buddhist mentor (bass Adam Lau) and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (tenor Bille Bruley) come together in the one-act opera in a series of piercing tableaux. Viewers see Jobs in the midst of a product launch, then are whisked back in time to his garage tinkerings with Wozniak while the two create the first Macintosh computer. As Jobs becomes sick with cancer, the opera turns inward. A technological-feeling music enriches scenes that bleed into one another and jump around like so many fragmented memories.

The opera is a rich character study of Jobs, but it isn’t a canonization of the extremely complex man. Bates said he set out to “explore the obsessions of Steve Jobs” and the “Achilles’ heel elements of his life” — notably his need for complete control of everything he touched.

“People don’t have one button. People are complicated. Humans are beautifully messy,” he said, speaking from the Bay Area on an iPhone of dubious signal strength. “And yet, because of Steve Jobs, all of our communication between one another has been kind of shoved into these sleek little devices.”

Credit: Austin Opera

Credit: Austin Opera

Drawing a parallel to the world of Broadway, where editing happens during previews of new musicals, Zvulun said second productions help fine-tune new operas. Part of his job as a director is to give new life to these contemporary operas, something he also did with “Silent Night” in 2016.

“Often the world premiere production is too complex and heavy to travel. Or it doesn’t sell well. It becomes essential for artistic directors to identify new works that deserve to be seen widely and create smart productions that can travel extensively and have successful runs,” Zvulun said. “Second productions prove the staying power of a contemporary opera.”

Zvulun said he looks forward to a long life for the opera because of its “massive market appeal.” Campbell added that contemporary operas that don’t receive repeat productions risk falling from memory, so he is grateful that Atlanta Opera is committed to repeat performances. This dedication to multiple runs of new works somewhat echoes what the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra has done under music director Robert Spano — playing a few new compositions repeatedly so that they have a better chance of living beyond their world premieres. That requires directors of contemporary opera to convince audiences to see something new, said Campbell.

“It sort of takes a visionary like Tomer to … break down the perceptions of what opera can be,” Campbell said. “I firmly believe that opera will die if we have to watch ‘Traviata’ 500 times and don’t have stories that are related to our lives in this country.”

When Bates first contacted Campbell about the concept for the opera, the librettist hesitated. From his perspective, the audience knew the subject so intimately that he feared it would be impossible to create an opera about a figure where “everyone has their own version of him.” He eventually signed on and experienced success with the first run. For this production, he and Bates worked closely with Zvulun to create a new experience for the audience. Campbell is amazed at how this new production shows Jobs’ humanity.

“It focuses more on the character of Steve Jobs and makes him more into a human being than an icon,” Campbell said. “He was a complex figure. And I only ask that people come to the opera … and try to let go of their own perceptions of Steve Jobs.”

The Atlanta Opera production was sidelined by the pandemic for a year, according to Bates. He spent the pandemic time much as others in the performing arts did — fretting about the future.

“Everyone was turning to digital experiences, and that’s not what my world is set up for,” he said. “We need to remind people why live experiences are worth going out for, worth leaving Netflix for.”

He recalled the first live show he saw after the shutdown — Marin Alsop conducting the Baltimore Symphony. “I think I started crying when the orchestra tuned. … It was like, you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it.”

Learning from the past few years and pushing innovation, that’s where Bates would like to see opera heading as it emerges from the pandemic.

“They can’t go back to business as usual,” he said. “They’ve got to really encourage their staff to think of new ways to remind people why this music is important, why this experience is important.”


OPERA PREVIEW

“The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.” April 30-May 8. $45-$150. Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre, 2800 Cobb Galleria Parkway, Atlanta. 404-881-8885, atlantaopera.org