Bay Area Composer Mason Bates to Create New Steve Jobs Opera

Composer Mason Bates. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Close)

Steve Jobs the movie was recently filmed at San Francisco Opera, and now a Steve Jobs opera by a Bay Area-based composer will receive its world premiere in Santa Fe. The world-renowned Santa Fe Opera announced the commission of an opera about the iconic Bay Area tech entrepreneur for its 2017 season. The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs will be composed by Burlingame resident Mason Bates with a libretto from Mark Campbell.

Bates is famous as a track suit wearing DJ and the second most performed living composer after John Adams, while Campbell is best known as the librettist for the opera Silent Night, which won a Pulitzer prize for composer Kevin Puts in 2012. Bates answered some questions about the Jobs work, his first opera.

What is it about Steve Jobs? Sure, he was charismatic and he was instrumental in getting Apple's sleek products in everybody's pockets. But isn't there something vaguely ironic about an opera about someone whose work routinely interrupts classical music performances?

The ubiquity of his devices speaks to how much he changed human communication.  How can you simplify the richness of our lives onto sleek little devices when people are so messy?  That tension lies at the heart of the opera, as does Jobs' journey from hippie to mogul to -- ultimately -- a someone with a deeper understanding of true human connection.

The opera will be workshopped this September in San Francisco in collaboration with Cal Performances at UC Berkeley, and with additional support from San Francisco Conservatory of Music. How does that work? Does that mean you will be working with students from those organizations?

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The principal roles will be cast from Santa Fe Opera's stunning apprentice program, and the ensemble singers will be SF Conservatory students.  So yes, there will be a mix of students and professionals.  The workshop will be private, I might add, simply because we want some privacy to make mistakes.

What is the structure of this opera? How many principal characters do you envision for the work? Will there be a chorus?

We didn't see the need for a chorus in an opera that takes place, in many scenes at least, in a garage with a handful of people.  The principal roles are Steve, his wife Laurene, Kobun [Kobun Chino Otogowa, Jobs' spiritual advisor], Woz [early business partner Steve Wozniak], and girlfriend Chrisann [Brennan].

You use electronic sounds in your work and often perform with orchestras. Do you anticipate being in the pit for this opera?

Absolutely!  I think many musicians see the opera pit as a magical place -- unless of course you've played a thousand Broadway shows, in which case it's the pits.

Santa Fe Opera performs at a stunning open-air theater in the desert near the town of Santa Fe. Are there special considerations for composing for this space?

There are some scenic opportunities.  For example, the scenes between Jobs and spiritual advisor Kobun would be wonderful with a desert backdrop.

Are there contemporary operas that you particularly like or living composers you especially admire? 

I like operas about people. Not products, not ideas.  I like roles, and I like memorable music.  The music needn't be simple or tonal, but if it is distinctive enough to be remembered, the opera can impact you much more deeply.  [Gyorgy] Ligeti has a wonderful opera called Le Grand Macabre, and, on the other end of the stylistic spectrum, Mark Adamo has created stunning works that marry words and music so perfectly.  Most of all, I love the operas of Benjamin Britten. Innovative music can bring to life compelling stories that haunt you.

Listen to a report filed by KQED's Peter Jon Shuler about the Santa Fe Opera commissioning the opera about Jobs:

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