There’s an opera for that Librettist Mark Campbell
One day a few years back, Mark Campbell looked at his iPhone and discovered a message from the composer Mason Bates: “I want to talk to you about a possible opera project.” Campbell called right away. “I wanted to work with Mason,” he said. “I liked that he had been using electronic music in his orchestral music very successfully. I really love his sense of play — there’s a theatricality to his music. So I called him, and he said, ‘Hi, yeah, here’s an idea I want to run by you. I’m thinking of writing an opera about Steve Jobs.’ And I said, ‘Oh, great!’ And inside I’m thinking, “Oh, sh**.’ ”
Campbell, the librettist for The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, is one of the hardest-working men in opera. Since 2001, he’s completed 16 operas — Silent Night, written with composer Kevin Puts, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2012. Six of them have premieres this year. But Jobs didn’t strike him as ripe material for the fields once trod by the likes of Mozart and Verdi. With some reservations, Campbell started looking into the man behind the Apple phenomenon. “I had a very limited knowledge of Steve Jobs. On the other hand, I had been using Apple products since 1984. I’m talking about the first Macintosh 128K. It was sitting on my table in the East Village in New York. It looked like a toaster. So I went back, and I started reading. I started with the Walter Isaacson book, and then I started reading everything online, and I realized, hey, there’s a really good story here! And there’s a sympathetic man here. He could be a bastard, he was a perfectionist, but he wasn’t only that. And the more I thought about it, the more excited I became about him as a subject.”
How does someone become a librettist? In Campbell’s case, the mountain came to Muhammad. He’d been an advertising man, and a successful lyricist in musical theater, when he got a call from the composer John Musto. “He’d heard I was interested in opera, he’d read a few of my lyrics and really liked them, and he proposed that I write a comic opera. I wrote it, and I instantly found a home.”
Campbell’s grounding in operatic writing didn’t come from a study of the repertory classics. He drew his inspiration from a surprising source. “Everything I ever learned about libretto writing I got from Stephen Sondheim. He’s a playwright who uses music. He happens, of course, to write beautiful lyrics, and beautiful character-engendered lyrics. Sondheim has, in a number of interviews, expressed — I don’t want to say a distaste for opera — I would say distrust of the operatic form.” But in Sondheim, Campbell found an aesthetic and an intelligence that used the discipline of song to drive characters and tell a story.
“I do think we’re kind of in the golden age of American opera right now. We have so many new operas coming out. My colleagues are doing such terrific work. We’re writing operas that appeal to modern audiences, and I see nothing wrong with that. To me, that is the art. Opera is a populist art for me. And all I care about is my audience. That they’re seeing a good story, maybe they’ll learn something, but I definitely want them to feel something.”
This conversation took place on a sunny terrace on the grounds of Santa Fe Opera. “I love it here,”
Campbell said. “The first time I came was because of this opera, about three years ago. I’m writing an opera now about Georgia O’Keeffe. And I’ve conceived this whole opera taking place on the train ride that she took in 1929 from New York to Santa Fe. There’s a line where she’s approaching Lamy, and she looks at the clouds and says, ‘Here the clouds mean more.’ I’ve been thinking about that line a lot. I’m just agog with the beauty of this place.”
But it’s more than just the natural wonders of the area that impress him. “Santa Fe has been absolutely spectacular in the resources they have devoted to this opera. We have asked that the production be as innovative and as state of the art as the subject. And they have followed through brilliantly. I was at the tech rehearsal last night, and I think the audience is going to be just wowed by this production, in a way that they’ve never been wowed before in Santa Fe.”
To get inside the head of Jobs, Campbell decided to do just that. Although the piece jumps back and forth in time, it all takes place in the mind and the memories of its subject. The action circles between a prologue and epilogue set in 1965, when young Steve’s father presents him with a workbench, and it whirls among scenes scattered through the ’70s, ’80s, and on up to Jobs’ death in 2011.
“The through line,” Campbell said, “is the character of Ko¯bun Chino Otogawa, Steve Jobs’ spiritual mentor. When I found that character, it opened up the world to me. Then the second spiritual guide, I would say is Laurene Powell Jobs, Steve’s wife. There’s a handing-off between these two characters in this opera.” He paused, reflecting. “How do you reduce any person’s life? And yet I had to. It’s an assignment, and one I really like doing. Who wants a four-hour opera?“The opera, he pointed out, clocks in at about 90 minutes. “It’s a great format. The audience really likes it, I get to say what I want to say, and I don’t think that the message is any less profound.”
In his research, Campbell became intrigued with the Buddhist enso¯, a hand-drawn circle, which he has Jobs discovering in an early scene. It seemed a perfect way to represent the revolution that brings his protagonist circling back on the events of his life. “Did it have an emotional impact on him? I don’t know. But it makes for a nice symbol. The idea of an enso¯ — the reason the Buddhists draw it every day — is the idea that you can never draw a perfect circle. That we’re humans, and we must appreciate that. And so Steve Jobs, who wanted the perfect circle, realized at the end of his life that no, humans don’t work that way. The imperfect circle is as beautiful as the perfect circle. Even more beautiful, because it’s human.”
The more he dug into the character, the more fascinated Campbell became with the complexity of the man and the possibilities he presented for an opera. “I’d credit Mason a lot with this story, because I tended to go for humor, for something more edgy, more critical of Steve Jobs. And Mason kept tugging me into the heart of the story. He was humanizing it. He was humanizing me, maybe. I found a few stories that were not pleasant but were very human; I found a few stories that I thought were just funny — Steve taking acid and hearing music playing in a field. This opera has a lot of comedy in it.
“And then finding a way to put all of these anecdotes together so it doesn’t become the Steve Jobs Operatic Revue, but it does have an arc,” Campbell said. “This is a man who found a way to humanize the computer, but had real issues himself with being human. He couldn’t accept the messiness of human lives. He was horrible to his girlfriend, he disowned his daughter, he could not accept his own mortality. And that’s what this story is. That’s why there is an opera.”
Opera is a populist art for me. And all I care about is my audience. That they’re seeing a good story, maybe they’ll learn something, but I definitely want them to feel something. — Mark Campbell