Mason Bates and the iOpera
THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS MUSIC BY MASON BATES • LIBRETTO BY MARK CAMPBELL PREMIERE: JULY 22, 2017, SANTA FE OPERA SUNG IN ENGLISH
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.santafeopera.org 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