Lousy re­views are good for opera

The Denver Post - - FEATURES - By Ray Mark Ri­naldi

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.

Ken Howard, Santa Fe Opera

Ed­ward Parks in the ti­tle role of Santa Fe Opera’s “The (R)evo­lu­tion of Steve Jobs.”

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