Tech Visionary Steve Jobs’ Life Played Out on Opera Stage

Steve Jobs – who helped usher in the era of personal computers – has been the subject of movies and books, but his complicated life, and the ubiquitous objects he left behind, also turn out to be the stuff of opera.

“Steve Jobs’ life was complicated and messy,” notes Grammy-nominated composer Mason Bates. “He had a daughter that he didn’t acknowledge for many years; he had cancer – you can’t control that. He was while a very charismatic figure, quite a hard driving boss, and his collisions with the fact that he wanted to make everything sleek and controllable, yet life is not controllable, is (a) fascinating topic for an opera.”

Bates, who has composed dozens of symphonies and chamber works, felt that Jobs was the right subject for his first opera. Mark Campbell, one of the most prolific librettists in contemporary American opera, was not so sure.  

“I’ve had a number of socialist friends of mine saying, ‘Why would you write an opera about Steve Jobs? He was the worst capitalist!'” he recalls. His response? “Reach in your pocket; you probably have an iPhone there.”

Rather than creating a chronological life story, Campbell says the collaborators opted for a fragmented narrative to reflect the man and his machines. “Steve Jobs did have a mind that just jumped from idea to idea to idea – it was very quick. And we wanted to tell an opera that is also very quick, that jumps around.”

So The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which premiered at the Santa Fe Opera last month, shifts back and forth in time over the course of 18 scenes. And the composer created a different musical world for each character. Since Jobs played guitar, and spent much of his time dealing with electronics, Bates gave him “this kind of busy frenetic quicksilver world of acoustic guitar and electronica.”

Jobs’ wife, Laurene, had a calming influence, helping him focus – and her sound reflects that. “Completely different space, of these kind of oceanic soulful strings.”

Other characters depicted include Jobs’ partner, Steve Wozniak, and the Japanese-born Zen priest, Kobun Chino Otogawa, who led Jobs to convert to Buddhism, and served as a mentor for much of his life. Bates says he has an “almost purely electronic world of prayer bowls and processed Thai gongs.”

The opera’s set echoes Jobs’ creations, says director Kevin Newbury. After a prologue in a replica of the iconic garage where Jobs’ ideas first took shape, the garage walls explode into six moving cubes with screens…which look a lot like iPhones.  

“We’re doing something called projection mapping where all of the scenic units have little sensors, so the video actually moves with them. We wanted to integrate it so seamlessly into the design because that’s what Steve Jobs and Apple did with the products themselves.”

Jobs’ sense of design was influenced by Japanese calligraphy, including the ensō – a circle that depicts the mind being free to let the body create. Bates says that also figures in the opera’s title: The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, with the capital “R” in parentheses.

“Of course, there’s the revolution of Steve Jobs in his creations and his devices. There’s also the evolution from a countercultural hippie, to a mogul of the world’s most valuable company. And there’s the revolution in a circle of Steve Jobs as he looks at the ensō, this piece of Japanese calligraphy, and finds that when he can kind of come full circle, he reaches the kind of completion that he sought so long in his life.”

Audiences have been wildly enthusiastic about the opera, even if the reviews from critics have been mixed. Now, it’s headed to Seattle – home to rival tech company Microsoft! – and then San Francisco, which will bring the piece full circle to the Bay area, where Steve Jobs grew up.