Lousy reviews are good for opera
Cancer didn’t kill “Steve Jobs.” Anne Midgette of The Washington Post did it with one bad opera review earlier this summer. Zachary Woolfe of The New York Times buried him shortly after in 16 quickly dispatched paragraphs, 12 of which could fairly be categorized as mud.
The Santa Fe Opera meant to make the tech mogul immortal with the musical biography it premiered July 22, or at least to resurrect him in the flesh-andblood form of a baritone who could make audiences feel his vitality for years to come. The work, by hot-right-now composer Mason Bates and super librettist Mark Campbell, was deemed a smash before it even hit the stage, with so much advance hype that Santa Fe actually added an extra performance to its summer schedule. That never happens.
But then Midgette dropped into New Mexico for the premiere, leaving behind her a very public note that described the piece as “tedious,” “canned” and “more constructed than genuinely involving.” Woolfe only took issue with the singing, the scenery, the premise, the lyrics, the title, the tone and the music, which he described as “alternating modes of dogged propulsion and layer-cake grandiosity.” No opera should survive such a trashing by two of the country’s mostrespected music critics. And yet.
The Santa Fe production, which continues through Aug. 25, is thrilling audiences that appreciate its energy, its modernity, its relevance and the fact that it is only 90 minutes long. The crowds flocking to the open-air opera house are
giddy before it starts and rapturous as it ends. I talked some of them before and after a performance last week, including several folks under 40, and all were grateful to have an opera that spoke directly to their own history — and incredulous that the thing could get such bad reviews.
Plenty has already been written, both good and bad, so I’m skipping a formal review. Yet I will say that I don’t disagree with a lot of the things Midgette or Woolfe had to say.
The story, which paints Jobs as a cold-hearted inventor, mean boss and super bad dad — before the love of a good woman reminds him to be human — is a tad convenient. The dramatic structure, which jumps back and forth through time, is distracting. Little things, like giving the show’s only Asian character an expanded leitmotif that sounds Asian-y, are troubling. Oh, and I’m with Woolfe: The official title, “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” is cloying.
But I’m more in tune with reviews that fell in the reasonable middle. Like Mark Swed’s in the Los Angeles Times, which acknowledged a few problems but deemed the work “winning” and, similar to Jobs’ famous Apple computer products, “full of inner workings but simple on the surface, totally user-friendly.” Joining with other critics, I found the opera’s hightech, projection-based sets dazzling and appropriate for the subject matter; the music fast, furious and forward-looking; the lyrics touching and hilarious both; the acting punchy and the vocals moving, despite the fact that the singers were mic’d to compete with the electronic shadings Bates is known for. That’s unusual in the pure opera world, and it was hard to swallow — until I relaxed about it and just listened. This production, to me, deserves its standing ovations.
In the end, it’s swell when a new piece of art challenges us, gives us things to admire and others to groan over. Unfamiliar objects, by nature, make us uncomfortable, force us to adjust, resist, explore, explode. With “Jobs,” I found this critical disagreement especially welcome. I didn’t love the negative reviews, but I see them as them revealing. They may have said unflattering things about this particular opera, but they said terrific things about opera, in general, circa, 2017. Such as:
Going forward, the drama matters as much as the music. Remember, this
is the art form in which over-the-top story lines have been perfectly acceptable for four centuries. Plots turn when lovers put on silly masks, when the gods get a little angry, when heroines suddenly fall on their own knives. Consider: The night before “Jobs,” I attended Santa Fe’s production of the 107year-old “The Golden Cockerel,” which ends when a giant bird kills a selfish king by pecking him to death — and even that didn’t seem too weird in an opera house.
The fact that critics were so concerned about the arc of “Jobs,” maybe even more than the music, shows how much better opera is than it used to be.
Opera just might have its f irst critic-proof hit.
Hollywood makes them all the time; badly reviewed products that go on to break box office records, critics be damned. In the classical world, as with Broadway, pans are more likely to keep crowds away and discourage future productions.
“Jobs” is so topical, likable and relevant to everycomplex one carrying the miracle of a smartphone in their pockets that bad reviews may not matter. They haven’t crushed the enthusiasm in Santa Fe, and that bodes well for San Francisco Opera and Seattle Opera, which co-commissioned this work and now have to sell it to hometown crowds in coming seasons. If they succeed, new productions will rain down.
Criticism is alive and well. The media business
is ailing thanks in large part to a growing disinterest in thoughtful reading on the part of the broad public. The result: professional critics are disappearing. There used to be dozens of full-time classical music critics in the U.S.; now there are a handful. Part-timers do what they can, but there are too few professional critics with enough institutional sponsorship to do their homework, take the time to listen, and cover the plane tickets and hotel rooms that are necessary to hear important work in far-off cities.
Midgette and Woolfe wrote from their heads and their hearts, and reminded us that good critics are still true to the task. Going negative on a crowd favorite makes a critic a target; it takes bravery. Sure, Woolfe may have gone a little overboard (it happens to all critics; Google my name and “mean review” and a few things will come up) but he backed up what he said.
Opera keeps producing new stars. In this case,
bass Wei Wu, who sang the part of Kobun, Steve Jobs’ cheeky spiritual adviser. Nearly every review singled him out as a showstealer. Looking good in a bad situation is hard. It’s also career-making. Wu, by the way, studied at the University of Colorado Boulder and has had unrelenting support from the Front Range opera community since he came to this country from China in 2007.
Mason Bates may be the missing link. This is a
golden age for American opera with so many new commissions debuting and many of them entirely listenable and worthy of future stagings. But they don’t have a contemporary pulse that speaks to the masses.
Bates is able to write meaningful music for orchestras and classical voices that also appeals to the pop music fringes. Not dumb pop, the fluff you hear on radio or trite show tunes, but smart, edgy music that uses modern technology and an inclusive world-view of instrumentation to make people listen deeply and think. It’s easy to make fun of his trippy electronics, or dismiss him because he sits in the pit during the show, among the violinists and oboe players, offering digital tricks from a laptop to widen the sound profile. But he’s bringing young people to an aging form, with skill and dignity offered across the divide.
The possibilities suddenly feel endless.
Contemporary composers, like John Cage and George Crumb, have integrated off-beat noises into classical music for decades now, but there were always physical limits. Digital opens up endless opportunities to remix familiar traditions and, if we are amenable to that, things could get very interesting in the next decade. Or this: Why not a “Steve Jobs” run on Broadway? It’s short, poppy and already amplified. It could actually make a profit, set a precedent. Or this: More nationally ranked opera companies, like Santa Fe, Seattle and San Francisco, taking risks on youthful, experimental outings. There’s plenty of new, not enough weird, on big opera stages. There are many more “Steve Jobs” ripe for music and, yes, sometimes for murder.
Edward Parks in the title role of Santa Fe Opera’s “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.”