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What is an opera about Steve Jobs like? We found out in Austin

Michael Barnes
Austin 360

"I loved every aspect of this show," said audience member Jasmine Williams after a performance of new opera "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs." "I thought I knew about Jobs, but I learned things."

In a city with so many tech-savvy folks and even a corporate Apple presence, I was curious what audience members experienced at the show's Sunday matinee at the Long Center for the Performing Arts. The production ran for two performances over the weekend.

Those whom I buttonholed in the lobby expressed, like me, affirmative responses to Mason Bates' and Mark Campbell's impeccable 100-minute opera, given its Texas premiere by Austin Opera, as sleek, smart and sublime as an Apple device.

It's not every day that Austin Opera presents a Texas premiere, much less one that launches a tour of its staging — along with its lead performers — to Kansas City, Missouri, in March and Atlanta in April.

Last week, Austin Opera presented the Texas premiere of Mason Bates and Mark Campbell's "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" at the Long Center.

The show was especially impressive because Austin Opera, as announced from the stage, overcame the stress of a long pandemic delay, an ice storm that nixed opening night, a boil-water notice and, despite herculean safety efforts, 17 (mostly mild) COVID cases among the creative team of more than 150.

The results, however, proved profoundly memorable.

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"I loved it," said audience member Laurel Zeiss after the show. "The singing was superb and the production very stylish. I thought the screens worked well."

The screens about which Zeiss spoke were critical to the success of the show. Projection designers S. Katy Tucker and Blake Manns flashed thousands of digital images across banks of 28 desktop-type screens, along with extended screens above and around the stage setting of mod, elegant platforms.

The effect on the 19 scenes, set between 1965 and 2011, was hypnotic, enlightening.

Also crucial to the opera's success was Bates' pulsating, propulsive music, combined with a bit of jazz and a fully romantic payoff. Conductor Timothy Myers kept this storm of music, as well as its peaceful respites, right on the tips of our ears.

Librettist Campbell made the words and action simple, proportional, which helped us keep track of the back-and-forth crosscuts of Job's life — a tinkering boy; a rebellious young man full of wonder; an inventor with an eye for perfection; a cruel taskmaster, collaborator and boyfriend; and later in life, rescued by his wife and his Zen mentor, a fully engaged adult who nevertheless faced medical collapse from pancreatic cancer w hile coming up with the "one device" — better known as the ubiquitous iPhone.

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Stage director Tomer Zvulun made sense of this revolution and coached a piercingly moving performance from John Moore as Jobs. Tall, lean and nimble, Moore did not pull back from Jobs' egotism or his cruelty. At the same time, he embodied the wrenching personal evolution suggested by the opera's title.

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"From what I know, this was how Jobs was," said Courtney Aguilar, who was seeing the opera for a second time. "The show brought a humanness to his ego and genius, giving him vulnerability and redemption."

Worth noting, from the opera's disclaimer about the show: "'The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs' is inspired by the life and creative spirit of Steve Jobs and does not purport to depict actual events as they occurred or statements, beliefs, or opinions of the persons depicted. It has not been authorized or endorsed by Apple Inc., the Estate or Family of Steve Jobs, or by any persons depicted therein."

Moore was not alone onstage. Sarah Larson was an angelic presence as wife Laurene Powell Jobs; Wei Wu a tower of insight and wit as Kobun Chino Otogawa; Bille Bruely a jovial and later judgmental collaborator as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; and Madison Leonard a frisky flower child as Chrisann Brennan, mother of Jobs' first child.

While I learned a good deal about Jobs and Apple — I've been a devoted Apple user since 1984 — other audience members wanted more.

"It focused more on his personal life," said Swayamdipta "Sway" Bhadini. "I'm a technical person and I was hoping for more technical material, more on Apple history and its rivalry with Microsoft."

Fair enough. Yet an opera is an opera, not a biographical or historical book or movie. It is more about feeling and reflection, along with often overwhelming visual and aural wonders. 

This particular opera does not take itself too seriously, and even jokes about the ubiquity of the iPhone, to which many in the audience were expected to return as soon as the opera was over.

It ends, however, with a splendid Zen line about how to escape our devices: "Look up, look out, look around."