Love, anger, redemption: Steve Jobs opera takes the CEO's story to new emotional heights

Saturday marks the world premiere of "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs," an opera that captures nearly five decades of the tech leader's life. Composer Mason Bates tells us why Jobs' life is perfect opera material.
The life of Apple CEO Steve Jobs has been adapted for the stage by the Santa Fe Opera. (Jeff Chiu/Associated Press)

When Steve Jobs was building his career as the CEO of Apple, he probably didn't expect his legacy to include an opera. And he might not have guessed he'd be played by a baritone, either.

But less than a decade after his death in 2011, Jobs' life is about to get the full operatic treatment.

On Saturday, the Santa Fe Opera will stage the world premiere of "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs," an ambitious production that spans nearly five decades of the tech CEO's life.

He's got love; he's got anger; he's got redemption. We've got all the pieces that opera can explore so beautifully.- Mason Bates, composer of "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs"

As the opera's acclaimed composer Mason Bates tells Day 6 guest host Marcia Young, the tech CEO's life story provides the perfect fodder for the classical music form.

"He's got obsession; he's got death," says Bates. "He's got love; he's got anger; he's got redemption. We've got all the pieces that opera can explore so beautifully."

"The central thing about his life — the central tension between the sleek devices that he created, that simplify human communication, and the beautiful messiness of life — that's something we all deal with right now, and it hasn't really been explored in opera."

"And he's the perfect vehicle to discuss these topics."

Garrett Sorenson as Steve Wozniak and Edward Parks as Steve Jobs in "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs." (Ken Howard / Santa Fe Opera)


Steve Jobs: Hero or villain?

Since his death in 2011, Steve Jobs has been the subject of multiple films and more than a dozen biographies.

But "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs" seeks to explore a side of Steve Jobs that's been missed in the many existing narratives about his life.

"Even in a film, it's kind of deceivingly representational," says Bates. "You're looking at people who are speaking and acting in a way that's very similar to real life, yet you're collapsing all that into a two-hour movie that has to heighten all the drama."

"And opera never makes any bones about being representational — you know, people don't go around singing. So because of that, I think we can explore more poetically the emotional journey of Steve Jobs."

In the opera, Steve Jobs is neither villain nor hero.

"He's both protagonist and antagonist," says Bates. "That's one of the fascinating things about Steve Jobs. He had, clearly, a kind of autocratic drive that many people have acknowledged — from the way he ran Apple to the way he ran his family. But he also had a Jesus-like charisma."

"This is a man that could convince people of almost anything. And his infectious creativity was able to withstand the limitations of its time and ultimately, even beyond his death, flower into this company and these devices that have impacted us in such big ways."

Baritone Edward Parks as Steve Jobs in Santa Fe Opera's world premiere of "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs." ((Ken Howard/Santa Fe Opera via AP))


Jobs as a baritone

One pivotal scene in the opera explores the moment when Jobs learns that his then-girlfriend Chrisann is pregnant while he and Steve Wozniak are building a motherboard in his garage.

"He tells her in no uncertain terms not to go through with it," says Bates.

"[Then] he returns to the garage and kinda looks at the ugly motherboard and has this idea. He says, 'We should cover it up; we should cover it up with a beautiful box.' And instantly, he's launched into this aria about how these devices can be something we play like an instrument."

For Bates, the scene reveals a lot about Jobs' character.

He's both protagonist and antagonist.- Mason Bates, composer of "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs"

"He goes from this reflexive, controlling impulse to cover up the messiness of life with a beautiful life, and then he fixates on the box and how the design and the interface can be a beautiful thing."

"And we can see how the beauty and the controlling are all part of the same package."

In opera, different voice types — soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor, bass — tend to be associated with different archetypal character traits.

For Bates, there was no question which vocal part would best capture Jobs: The baritone.

"Many times in opera, the tenor is the star," says Bates. "But there are also some very important baritone leads — and they often are more complicated characters."

Bates points to Mozart's famous lead Don Giovanni as one such iconic baritone.

"He's clearly a seductive, charismatic figure, but he's also kind of a womanizer and a crass human being."

Steve Wozniak's character is played by a tenor, while Jobs' wife Lorraine is a mezzo-soprano whose deeper vocal register is meant to reflect her role as a grounding force in Jobs' life.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs in 2011. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


21st century opera

Bates hopes "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs" will help expand what's possible in the world of opera.

It's a little bit 'meta' to be working on a piece about a man whose devices are making it happen.- Mason Bates, composer of "The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs"

"There are elements of this opera that I have not experienced in an opera house and I'm excited to see how they play out," he says.

"It's non-linear; we're jumping around through time. And like any single pixel, any single scene is not going to tell you much — but when they light up next to each other, that's when a story, an image, becomes animated."

The opera's sound is similarly groundbreaking.

"The music has a very broad electroacoustic sound-world. So we're going to hear all kinds of sounds, some of which are made from actual Macintosh gear," says Bates.

"It's a little bit 'meta' to be working on a piece about a man whose devices are making it happen … And I think, in a way, that reminds us all on the creative team that the person we're dealing with has had an impact that is felt by every person on the planet, or very many of them."

"You've got to remember that opera has always been connected to technology. Pyrotechnics, stagecraft — these kinds of things have always been pushed ahead in opera. And I look forward to seeing how the medium will develop in the 21st century."

To hear the full interview with Mason Bates, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.