Steve Jobs—the charismatic co-founder of tech giant Apple who shepherded groundbreaking personal computers and the revolutionary iPhone into the world—has been likened to a monk, an artist and an oracle. And like a god, elements of his life are shrouded in myth.
Among the latest attempts to untangle the myth from the man is The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a Grammy Award-winning electro-acoustic opera that made its Bay Area debut at the War Memorial Opera House on Friday as part of San Francisco Opera’s 101st season.
With its two-week run, the opera not only finally arrives in the Bay Area after a three-year pandemic-induced delay, but also the creatives behind it hope the production helps strip away the mystique around the late and legendary tech mogul by showing him as a fallible man, a rebellious “California hippie” and—ultimately—human.
For the opera’s composer, Bay Area DJ and music maker Mason Bates, the production’s much-anticipated arrival in San Francisco felt like a homecoming. Not only did San Francisco Opera co-commission the work before Covid pushed off its Bay Area premiere, but much of the story also takes place in Silicon Valley, where Jobs grew up tinkering in his adopted father’s Los Altos garage and ultimately built his iconic tech company.
Bates hopes that San Francisco audiences will not only have a special connection with the show because of the region’s strong affiliation with tech but also see a more human side of Jobs that might be missed in films or books that overly lionize or vilify his character and life.
“He’s both protagonist and antagonist,” said Bates, who collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist Mark Campbell on the opera’s creation. “I definitely wanted a balanced portrait.”
Bates insists that the opera is not a “biopic”—a disclaimer in the press release for the show denotes that the production “does not purport to depict actual events as they occurred or statements” and “has not been authorized or endorsed by Apple Inc., the Estate or Family of Steve Jobs or by any persons depicted.” But he believes the musical format can dramatize the contradictory elements of Jobs’ life like few other mediums.
For instance, he points to a scene in the show when Jobs’ on-again-off-again high school sweetheart, Chrisann Brennan, reveals she’s pregnant with their daughter, Lisa Brennan-Jobs, for whom Jobs named a computer but did not acknowledge as his child for some time. (Jobs famously denied paternity of Brennan-Jobs in a 1980s Time magazine profile with reporting by the publication’s San Francisco correspondent at the time, Michael Moritz. Moritz, now a venture capitalist and philanthropist, finances The Standard.)
Instead of accepting or rejoicing at the news, Jobs fixates on making the computer he’s working on with his friend and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak more aesthetically pleasing with a cover that hides the machine’s motherboard and wires. The phrase “cover it up” that Jobs, played by baritone John Moore, sings during the scene rings with a double meaning—Jobs is not only trying to “cover up” the machine but also “cover up” imperfect aspects of his life.
“Right there, you see that the design impulse of Steve is two-edged,” Bates said. “It’s both an element of beauty—let’s make this a beautiful machine—and it’s also an element of control. Let’s not see anything that’s inside it. And that’s the kind of a moment in opera that you can’t get in any other medium where you can see several sides of a person at the same time.”
Other portions of Jobs’ life—such as refusing to give an early Apple employee stock or trying to fight the pancreatic cancer he ultimately succumbed to with alternative treatments—are also ripe material for illustrating the icon’s complex persona.
“His life is the stuff of opera,” Bates said. “It’s just filled with passion, obsession, betrayal. There’s love; there’s hate. It’s played out in such big ways. He was an orphan, yet he abandoned his own daughter. He wanted to control everything in his life, including his own cancer treatments, which is quite an Achilles flaw. And those kinds of really big themes that play out in really dramatic ways make for great opera stories.”
In portraying Jobs, Moore, who makes his San Francisco Opera debut with the role, not only wants to get Jobs’ signature hand mannerisms and body language just right on stage but also bring the iconoclastic tech visionary closer to Earth for audiences.
“I just doubled down on really being passionate about getting the storytelling as close as I could to portraying him in such a way that it really honors him as a total person,” Moore said. “I think at the end of the day a lot of people, no matter what your proximity is to Steve Jobs as a human, you’re going to see a human story.”
Other humanizing forces in Jobs’ character arc include appearances by his spiritual guru Kōbun Chino Otogawa—played by bass Wei Wu in the opera, who strings his sung conversations with Jobs with pearls of wisdom—and the woman Jobs goes on to marry, philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs, played by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke.
Bates observes that Cooke’s role provides a grounding counterpoint to Jobs’ character. Cooke sees not only a soft and warm complementary figure but also a reality check on Jobs’ tendency to ignore harsh truths in his life. Case in point: a pivotal dramatized argument between the couple, with Laurene desperately urging Jobs to seek professional medical help for his illness for her sake and their family’s.
“The opera takes the position that Laurene had to help him wake up and take care of himself,” Cooke said. “It’s a long, heated discussion, saying, ‘You’re not a machine; you’re a human being.’ I think it’s really refreshing to see an argument on an opera stage because almost everyone in the room can relate to that, that doesn’t have to be Steve and Laurene; it’s a couple. It’s two people that care about each other, and they’re pushed to the brink. ... Everyone can relate to that—the fear of losing someone.”
Ultimately, Bates hopes the audience can see Jobs as but a mere mortal, one who not only brought life-changing machines into the world but was also a “California hippie” at heart. Scenes of Jobs getting high with Chrisann in an apple orchard, rebelliously blue box phone phreaking with Wozniak in a garage and meditating at a Zen center with Otogawa underscore those various facets.
“You can’t go and experience the biography of somebody if they remain a myth,” Bates concluded. “You have to find the human element. You have to find the guy in the garage smoking a joint, prank-calling the Vatican on an early telephone you made. You have to find the human there if you’re going to have an opera that works.”
Whether it does will be up to viewers to decide.
Christina Campodonico can be reached at email@example.com