Mason Bates certainly divides opinion. Named the most-performed composer of his generation (and Musical America’s 2018 Composer of the Year), The New York Times, on the other hand, recently mocked his “blandly affable forced marriages of rave-style electronic beats and Bernstein-style orchestral lushness”. His opera about Steve Jobs – Apple founder, aesthetical obsessive and all-round control freak – was therefore bound to excite controversy. But don’t believe a prominent handful of venomous reviews that smack of pre-conceived bias against a composer who dares to be accessible and – worse still – popular. The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs may not be perfect, but it does feature compelling music in the service of good drama.
If Danny Boyles’s film is to be believed, Jobs was a Jekyll and Hyde figure with an emphasis on the Hyde. An abusive executive, he was nearly booted out of his own company. In his private life he tried to force one partner to abort his child, regularly cut out former friends and shut out his long-suffering wife Laurene. The opera suggests that at the end of his life, dying of cancer, Jobs learned to accept and forgive imperfection. It may not be true, but it provides a decent arc for Mark Campbell’s respectable libretto (although the dramatic soufflé does sink somewhere around the middle). Bates’ tonal music with its electronic crackles and tics conjures the frenetic world of Silicon Valley in the 1990s. A dash of guitar serves as a motiv for Steve, Bachian riffs mark Apple’s sleek computers in startup mode, and the tinkle of Tibetan bowls accompany scenes with the Buddhist mentor who tried to help the dysfunctional Jobs in the early days. Vocal lines are attractive and, most importantly, singable.
Santa Fe Opera’s premiere is well cast, well conducted (by Michael Christie) and well recorded. As Jobs, baritone Edward Parks is effective enough, while mezzo Sasha Cooke makes a sympathetic fist of his wife, though her words thicken when impassioned. Wei Wu as the basso profundo guru and Jessica E Jones as the pregnant girlfriend are both ideal. The chorus is excellent, especially in a standout scene where hapless Apple employees are lashed by Jobs in his relentless quest for perfection. Well worth a listen.
Composer: Mason Bates
Composition: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
Performer: Santa Fe Opera/Michael Christie
Catalogue Number: Pentatone PTC5186690 (2CD)