Ma­son Bates and the iOpera


Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

a Fri­day af­ter­noon in June, the cast re­hearsal tak­ing place at Gad­des Hall on the Santa Fe Opera cam­pus is de­cid­edly low-tech. An acous­tic pi­ano sup­ports the nat­u­rally am­pli­fied singers in the small open-air am­phithe­ater, and the sun alone pro­vides a spot­light. Con­duc­tor Robert Tweten and pi­anist James Les­niak read in­tently from tra­di­tional printed and bound scores, while var­i­ous mem­bers of the pro­duc­tion team scrib­ble down notes us­ing pen­cil and pa­per. Be­tween takes, stage­hands re­po­si­tion blank wall pan­els that are de­void of any pro­jected im­agery.

This could be mis­taken for a re­hearsal lead­ing up to SFO’s first sea­son, rather than its 61st. Only the preva­lence of hip footwear be­trays that the year is 2017 — un­til com­poser Ma­son Bates be­gins trig­ger­ing au­dio ef­fects on his Mac­Book. Syn­the­sized gongs ring out over omi­nous, mod­u­lat­ing bass tonal­i­ties. The elec­tronic sounds create a shift in mood from the shim­mery pi­ano part that came be­fore. They co­in­cide with the ap­pear­ance on stage of singer Wei Wu, who plays Ko¯bun Chino Oto­gawa, the real-life spir­i­tual ad­vi­sor to the fig­ure at the cen­ter of this opera: Ap­ple co-founder Steve Jobs.

Even with the ad­di­tion of the dig­i­tal sounds, the re­hearsal paints a limited pic­ture of what au­di­ences can ex­pect from The (R)evo­lu­tion of Steve Jobs, which has its world pre­miere at Santa Fe Opera on Satur­day, July 22. It is a pro­duc­tion where high tech is set to meet high cul­ture, both mu­si­cally and vis­ually. Bates said this fu­sion falls within a tra­di­tion of op­er­atic in­no­va­tion.

“Opera has al­ways been at the fore­front of tech­nol­ogy, and so has the orches­tra. The orches­tra is this marvel of en­gi­neer­ing. Each in­stru­ment is the re­sult of a hell of a lot of re­search and de­vel­op­ment. Py­rotech­nics and mov­ing scenery — that’s what we can thank opera for,” Bates said be­tween bites of an egg salad sand­wich dur­ing a short lunch break. “I’ve al­ways felt, both in my sym­phonic pieces and now in opera, that we should look at these forms as not fully de­vel­oped, but con­tin­u­ing to evolve.”

It is his first opera. At forty, Bates is a sig­nif­i­cant Amer­i­can com­poser who has eclipsed the “ris­ing star” cat­e­gory. His ré­sumé is no­table for tra­di­tional ac­co­lades such as a Guggen­heim fel­low­ship and a res­i­dency at the Chicago Sym­phony Orches­tra, along­side his es­tab­lished cred­i­bil­ity as a DJ and pro­ducer of elec­tronic mu­sic. As com­fort­able in the orches­tra pit as the DJ booth, Bates of­ten com­bines both worlds in his work.

(R)evo­lu­tion ex­em­pli­fies this union. The com­poser will be per­form­ing the elec­tronic seg­ment of the score at ev­ery per­for­mance. He de­scribed his fi­nal

prepa­ra­tions for the show, which in­cluded re­hears­ing, tweak­ing the score, and work­ing out the tech­ni­cal lo­gis­tics, as “a Man­hat­tan Project.” The com­par­i­son re­in­forces Bates’ in­ter­est in tech­nol­ogy, with its at­ten­dant ben­e­fits and detri­ments. A num­ber of his sym­phonic pieces in­cor­po­rate the sounds as well as the themes of sci­en­tific in­no­va­tion. Al­ter­na­tive En­ergy, a work com­mis­sioned by the Chicago Sym­phony Orches­tra and pre­miered in 2012, has four move­ments that are each de­voted to a tech­ni­cal rev­o­lu­tion, be­gin­ning with the in­ven­tion of the au­to­mo­bile and pro­gress­ing be­yond the present to an imag­ined nu­clear plant of the fu­ture. The sec­ond move­ment in­cludes sam­ples taken from an ac­tive par­ti­cle ac­cel­er­a­tor, the deep pneu­matic whoosh­ing sounds cut up to rhyth­mi­cally co­in­cide with the in­stru­men­tals.

Sim­i­larly, as com­poser-in-res­i­dence at the Kennedy Cen­ter for the Per­form­ing Arts in Washington, D.C., Bates wrote a piece for the cen­ten­nial of Kennedy’s birth that cel­e­brates ma­chine as much as man. Pas­sage was per­formed by the Na­tional Sym­phony Orches­tra ear­lier this year, on May 24. Clock­ing in at un­der 20 min­utes, it is a rel­a­tively short piece that cov­ers a lot of ground — and space, too. The piece is all about ex­plo­ration, par­tic­u­larly the Apollo mis­sions. “I wasn’t go­ing to tell some kind of bor­ing old Lin­coln Por­trait, Aaron Co­p­land ver­sion of this,” Bates said, ref­er­enc­ing the 1942 work in which Lin­coln’s speeches are nar­rated live along­side a mu­si­cal score. In­stead, he won­dered, “Why don’t we ac­tu­ally get elec­tronic record­ings of his speeches and get elec­tronic sounds?” Among the recorded sam­ples in Pas­sage are the NASA launches and the fa­mil­iar voice of Kennedy in­ton­ing lines from his his­toric speech at Rice Univer­sity: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not be­cause they are easy, but be­cause they are hard.”

Fig­ur­ing into the Kennedy Cen­ter piece even more cen­trally than Kennedy’s quo­ta­tions is the live vo­cal part Bates wrote for Sasha Cooke, who also stars in

(R)evo­lu­tion. The se­lec­tion is from “A Pas­sage to India” by Walt Whit­man — a poet known for his con­nec­tion to Lin­coln, not Kennedy, as Co­p­land might point out. But the text proves greatly suited to a piece about ex­plo­ration. Bates ties the mu­si­cal nar­ra­tive to the lyri­cal one, be­gin­ning with an enterprising feel as Cooke sings lines about trains and canals. The mu­sic then swells into more ex­pan­sive ground as the text’s fo­cus moves to tow­er­ing moun­tains and mi­rages, then cul­mi­nates tautly in a launch se­quence that co­in­cides with verses about em­bark­ing on a hazardous voy­age.

The lit­er­ary com­po­nent so cen­tral to Pas­sage re­flects an­other facet of Bates’ aca­demic back­ground. As an un­der­grad­u­ate, he stud­ied English as well as mu­sic through the Columbia-Juil­liard Ex­change. In 2008, he com­pleted his PhD in com­po­si­tion at UC Berke­ley. By then, he had re­ceived the Rome Prize and the Amer­i­can Academy in Ber­lin Prize for his com­pos­ing. Far from be­ing a club DJ who stum­bled into the world of sym­phonic com­po­si­tion, then, Bates is a highly trained com­poser who has added the tools of the DJ to his arse­nal.

And it is a var­ied arse­nal. In ad­di­tion to full-scale elec­tric-acous­tic sym­phonic works, Bates has writ­ten pieces that fea­ture solo pi­ano (an in­stru­ment he plays), per­cus­sion and winds, and now, op­er­atic voice. He said one chal­lenge he en­coun­tered in scor­ing the opera was work­ing within the bounds of the stan­dard op­er­atic singing ranges, which he likened to “mi­cro­cli­mates.” In this case, the prin­ci­pal mi­cro­cli­mates are bari­tone Ed­ward Parks as Jobs, bass Wu, and mezzo-so­prano Cooke, who plays Jobs’ wife, Lau­rene Pow­ell Jobs.

“In this opera, ev­ery­body has their own sound world, al­most like a giant ver­sion of Wag­ner’s leit­mo­tifs. And when they in­ter­act, when they col­lide, that’s when things get in­ter­est­ing,” Bates told an au­di­ence at a “Works & Process at the Guggen­heim” event in New York City this spring. The char­ac­ter of Steve Jobs has a sound world that is de­fined by acous­tic gui­tar and what the com­poser called “quick­sil­ver elec­tron­ica.” Pow­ell Jobs is rep­re­sented by “oceanic strings,” Bates said. “Ko¯bun has these pro­cessed prayer bowls and chimes and gongs, and also alto flute.” These char­ac­ters’ nar­ra­tives un­fold non­lin­early over the course of 18 scenes that com­prise a sin­gle act. Jobs serves as pro­tag­o­nist and an­tag­o­nist both. He is por­trayed as a fig­ure walk­ing a curved path­way that is bounded by par­a­digm-shift­ing in­no­va­tion on one side and emo­tional iso­la­tion on the other.

“I think that is­sue of con­trol ver­sus the beau­ti­ful messi­ness of life is at the cen­ter of this opera,” Bates said. “Jobs’ life was so rich and in­ter­est­ing, and en­cap­su­lated that ten­sion be­tween what tech­nol­ogy en­ables us to do and the im­pact it has on our hu­man­ity.” Like Pas­sage, (R)evo­lu­tion tells the story of a com­plex Amer­i­can icon, rais­ing the ques­tion of whether Bates is es­tab­lish­ing a tra­jec­tory for him­self as a com­poser who com­mem­o­rates pub­lic fig­ures. “It’s a lit­tle bit of a co­in­ci­dence that they’re pre­mier­ing so close to each other. But I would say as an artist, I want to tell rel­e­vant sto­ries, and I see the orches­tra and opera as very key parts of telling rel­e­vant sto­ries.” Bates said. He stressed his con­tin­ued in­ter­est in the myr­iad of other mu­si­cal un­der­tak­ings that have marked his ca­reer thus far, dis­pelling the no­tion that opera com­po­si­tion rep­re­sents some sort of pin­na­cle that he set out to reach.

Most likely, The (R)evo­lu­tion of Steve Jobs will prove to be one more tan­gent touch­ing the curve of Bates’ own cre­ative jour­ney. But the work has a uniquely self-ref­er­en­tial dis­tinc­tion that ties in with the cir­cu­lar mo­tif it ex­plores: Ap­ple prod­ucts were them­selves es­sen­tial to the com­po­si­tion of the score and are also used in its per­for­mance.

“Isn’t that weird?” Bates re­flected. “It does add a level of meta-fic­tion that’s hard to ever just be non­cha­lant about.” Hav­ing fin­ished his sand­wich, he glanced at his iPhone. It was time to re­turn to re­hearsal.

“The (R)evo­lu­tion of Steve Jobs” opens at Santa Fe Opera at 8:30 p.m. on Satur­day, July 22, and con­tin­ues with per­for­mances at 8:30 p.m. on July 26; and at 8 p.m. on Aug. 4, Aug. 10, Aug. 15, and Aug. 25.

Bari­tone Ed­ward Parks fills the tit­u­lar role. Mezzo-so­prano Sasha Cooke plays Lau­rene Pow­ell Jobs. Jobs’ Zen ad­vi­sor, Ko¯bun Chino Oto­gawa, is sung by bass Wei Wu. Bari­tone Kelly Mark­graf is Paul Jobs. Tenor Gar­rett Soren­son por­trays Woz. So­prano Jessica Jones sings Chrisann Bren­nan. Kevin New­bury di­rects. Michael Christie is the con­duc­tor, with the sub­sti­tu­tion of Robert Tweten on Aug. 25.

Santa Fe Opera is seven miles north of Santa Fe on U.S. 84/285. Visit www.santafe­ or call 505-986-5900 or 800-280-4654 for ticket prices and avail­abil­ity.

The opera has a uniquely sel­f­ref­er­en­tial dis­tinc­tion: Ap­ple prod­ucts were es­sen­tial to the com­po­si­tion of the score and are also used in the per­for­mance.

Ma­son Bates; photo Kate War­ren

Jobs’ spir­i­tual ad­vi­sor, Ko¯ bun Chino Oto­gawa

Jobs with wife Lau­rene Pow­ell Jobs in 2007; AP Photo / Paul Sakuma

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