There’s an opera for that Li­bret­tist Mark Camp­bell

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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

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