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RECORDING OF THE MONTH
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Mason BATES (b. 1977) The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs – opera to a libretto by Mark Campbell [94:15]
Kelly Markgraf (baritone) – Paul Jobs
Edward Parks (baritone) – Steve Jobs
Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) – Laurene Powell Jobs
Wei Wu (bass) – Kōbun Chino Otogawa
Mariya Kaganskaya (mezzo-soprano) - Teacher
Garrett Sorenson (tenor) – Steve Wozniak (“Woz”)
Jessica E. Jones (soprano) – Chrisann Brennan
Adelaide Boedecker (soprano), Adam Bonanni (tenor), Kristen Choi (mezzo-soprano), Thaddeus Ennen (baritone), Andrew Maughan (tenor), Corrie Stallings (mezzo-soprano), Tyler Zimmerman (bass-baritone) – Ensemble soloists
Members of the Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Program for Singers
The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra/Michael Christie
rec. live, July and August 2017, The Santa Fe Opera, The Crosby Theatre, Santa Fe, USA
Libretto included PENTATONE SACD PTC5186690 [47:34 + 46:41]
“If, on the other hand, it is viewed that the first requirement of an opera is that it shall be operatic, then (this opera) must have provoked a great deal of criticism among yesterday’s opera-going audience. The fault is largely with the libretto. It is overloaded with scrappy and not always telling incident, and too much of it is cast in an unreal language. Moreover, there is little effective use of that balancing of the dramatic and the lyrical, of progress and pause, that has meant so much in the life of great opera. There are other ways, immediately perceptible but long to describe, in which (this opera) fails in the important matter of getting itself across. The company [...] did nearly everything that could be done to help the work over its obstacles.”
I read many reviews of Mason Bates’s and Mark Campbell’s opera after its Santa Fe premiere last year. While some were broadly positive, many critics regurgitated the tropes that dominate the review (of an entirely different piece) adapted above. I am not a natural opera buff – the suspension of disbelief involved tends to constitute a bridge too far for my more abstract sensibilities – but the real fascination to me of Mason Bates’s Jobs opera relates to the question of how an artist treats a (clearly complicated and divisive) public figure whose untimely demise in 2011 was extraordinarily recent. I can think of few precedents. I suppose the nearest high-profile works are John Adams’s Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer although his main focus in both are specific historical events as opposed to the personalities involved. Indeed, Nixon was still very much alive at the time of the former’s 1987 premiere. Perhaps better examples are Michael Daugherty’s Jackie O or even Mark-Anthony Turnage’s controversial Anna-Nicole, although superficially those operas concern tragic women; that could almost constitute a sub-genre in itself (in this regard Thomas Ades’s Powder Her Face also springs to mind).
The point is that Nixon, Kissinger, Mao Tse-Tung, Klinghoffer, Steve Jobs, Anna Nicole Smith et al. are perhaps more real to us hoi polloi than Orfeo, Siegfried, Madame Butterfly, Carmen, Acis or Galatea ever could be. They inhabit our time if not our personal space. In the six years between Jobs’s passing and the premiere of Bates’s opera, the public have had the opportunity to digest a controversial biography by Walter Isaacson and a biopic directed by Danny Boyle. Associates of the subject were quick to dismiss both as largely inaccurate and speculative. Now we have Steve Jobs the opera.
Opera composers over five centuries have thus attempted to dramatise the lives of the fictitious and the real in a plethora of ways, whether as chronologically ordered narratives, or as compilations of significant biographical episodes (as is the case here). While opera might challenge one, or entertain or even move one’s spirit, forensic, factual accuracy is not part of its remit. Bates’s and Campbell’s detractors have found their characters underdeveloped, their plot lacking weight and detail, their structure amorphous and unwieldy, and their main conceit or moral point contrived if not imaginary. Since I know little about Steve Jobs, his life, his science, his philosophy and the like, I am in no position to criticise the details. Moreover, as I own an iPad (and three iPods all of which I still use) I am in no doubt that the man’s inventions have significantly improved the quality of my life whether he was a psychotic misanthrope or not. And in that spirit I can report that I regard both Bates’s music and Campbell’s libretto as masterly, entertaining and moving.
These discs were recorded at live performances in Santa Fe. What they might lack in terms of studio finesse is more than compensated by the real sense of occasion that illuminates every heartfelt bar of this remarkable work. The last new opera that I enjoyed even vaguely as much was George Benjamin’s and Martin Crimp’s Written On Skin – a more contrasting example of the form could scarcely be imagined.
The work begins and ends in Jobs’s father’s garage, where dad Paul presents Steve (the consistently impressive baritone Edward Parks) with a workbench, which Jobs senior tells him ‘is a fine place to start’. Indeed the librettist presents this little anecdote as a metaphor for the opera itself, which essentially constitutes a fast moving series of vignettes drawn from all the phases of Jobs’s life. They are juxtaposed so as to best draw out what some critics derided as a rather twee and irrelevant plot, indeed one that some will see as materially irrelevant to Jobs’s place in modern history. In essence this boils down to the following: Jobs is an anti-capitalist hippy, turns out to be a brilliant inventor and even better businessman, becomes preoccupied with his company and its products, and perhaps unconsciously rejects the values of his youth; he meets a good woman whom he marries and eventually (sort of) gets through to him, with the help of the ghost of his former spiritual advisor. Their message? People are flesh and blood and ultimately do not need iPhones to communicate.
The point here is that if you are going to make an opera about a contemporary figure who was essentially an inventor there has to be some sort of narrative involving other characters. Otherwise one would be left with a series of tableaux vivants presumably performed solo by the Jobs character (or perhaps in tandem with Steve Wozniak). As contrived as Bates’s and Campbell’s solution might seem on paper, in practice (at least listening to the opera) I thought it worked brilliantly. I was completely tuned in from first bar to final enthusiastic applause. I really wanted to know how it turned out, indeed how Jobs turned out. The music is constantly imaginative and entertaining (even hummable at times), the singing excellent, and the hour and a half of its duration absolutely raced by.
Effectively the opera comprises 18 ‘numbers’; a brief prologue and epilogue with 16 scenes. Bates is described in the glossy booklet as ‘the most performed composer of his generation’ (I am really not sure how that statistic has been calculated – perhaps choral composers like Eric Whitacre and John Rutter and the likes of John Adams or Arvo Pärt were overlooked). Being familiar with a lot of his recent orchestral output, much of which has been recorded, I was intrigued to find out whether his technique and style could sustain a much longer structure. In my view the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. The music is constantly changing and varied. Rather than adopting melodic leitmotifs for specific characters, Bates associates each with different instruments or ensembles. Thus Jobs’s own character is amplified not just by the frenetic clicking and whirring of electronic sounds as but by an omnipresent ‘picked’ acoustic guitar (Jobs loved the instrument). This conceit might seem a bit trite but Bates’s superb writing for the instrument is endlessly inventive, colourful and idiomatic. (I have sought in vain the name of the superb, uncredited instrumentalist in this recording.) Bates also alludes in this device to the role of strummed instruments in early opera.
If the music for Jobs is restless and agitated, that provided for his wife Laurene Powell Jobs is the opposite: slower, reflective, often ethereal. The mezzo Sasha Cooke provides the most beatific singing as well as the most rounded characterisation of any of the roles in this work. The part of Steve Wozniak is paired with saxophones. The tenor Garrett Sorenson invests the part with both humour and gravitas, crucial for a character who attempts to provide Jobs with some sort of moral compass. The same could also be said of the scene-stealing bass Wu Wei whose role as Kōbun (Jobs’s late spiritual advisor) is accompanied by the exotic sounds of Chinese gongs and Tibetan bowls. Again this could seem like a lazy cliché but Bates’s assured, magnetic writing is anything but.
Most of the ‘action’ in this opera takes place on the screens behind the protagonists, in video projections and Apple-like new product marketing presentations (revealingly Apple itself is never mentioned – the corporation wanted absolutely nothing to do with this project). Edward Parks’s role as Jobs is seriously challenging and emotionally sapping. He features in virtually every scene and fast-moving as the music and narrative tend to be, there does not appear to be much in the way of physical action involving the characters. Consequently the characterisations projected by the performers are of necessity more nuanced. Those who criticised Parks’s performance as one-dimensional have in my view missed the mark entirely. As Mark Campbell describes so eloquently in the notes, everybody will have their own ‘version’ of this enigmatic man, and Parks’s ‘version’ is absolutely as valid as anybody else’s. His singing throughout is fabulous while his characterisation of a disintegrating, complex maverick convinced and impressed this reviewer at least.
I have barely scratched the surface in evaluating my encounters with this fascinating opera. There is a small, busy, perfectly formed ensemble chorus who perform heroics in terms of contextualising and linking the diffuse scenes. The extended orchestra seem committed and thoroughly rehearsed, while the whole is seamlessly held together by the conductor Michael Christie. It is a live recording, and while this shows (audience interaction and extraneous noises are neither edited out nor intrusive to one’s enjoyment), it adds to the electricity and excitement at what was clearly a much anticipated event. The huge audience shout and reaction at the end seems absolutely heartfelt – indeed I wanted to join in. It might well be that Mason Bates has written the first truly enduring opera of (and about) the computer age. I loved it and commend it to all. Pentatone’s presentation is appropriately sumptuous.
That adapted review at the beginning? It appeared on 9 June 1945 in The (Manchester) Guardian, after the Sadler’s Wells premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes.