My favorite Steve Jobs quote is: "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough--It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the result that makes our heart sing."
I've always been an opera nut, as well as an entrepreneur. At the end of August I found myself in Santa Fe at the Santa Fe Opera. It's my favorite place to see opera in the world. The house is open-air with a backless stage opening onto the magnificent vista of the New Mexico desert. An aesthetic experience in itself, even without opera.
But I was especially interested in seeing the world premier of a new opera--"The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs." I cannot think of a better figure for a modern operatic treatment than our ur-entrepreneur brother Steve Jobs, a man who combined all the originality, passion, and madness that constitute the peculiar attributes of someone who has the affrontery to presume to take the God-like action of creating something out of nothing.
Jobs' story is an heroic quest tale not unlike Wagner's Siegfried or Parcifal--a unique combination of hubris, artistry, idealism, and quasi-religious passion. Nothing less than a mythic soul journey.
And what better place to explore this than my favorite opera house in America, the Santa Fe Opera--an opera house especially noted for its courage and excellence in tackling "the new."
The operatic execution of this Jobs opera is generally well-wrought. Certainly the first half of this hour and a half intermissionless production is compelling.
Mason Bates, the composer of "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs," clearly understands the essence of Steve Job's entrepreneurial genius. He says:
"The story of Steve jobs exists at the intersection of creativity, technology, and human communication--a thematic crossroads that opera can explore unlike any other medium. Opera, after all, can illuminate the interior thoughts of different characters simultaneously through the juxtaposition of individual themes. That makes it an ideal medium to explore a man who revolutionized how we communicate."
Bates also appreciates the importance of Buddhism to Jobs. (When asked for his top five favorite business books, four of Jobs' five choices were books on Buddhist thought and theology.) In fact, the most compelling character in the opera is Kobun Chio Otogawa, Jobs' spiritual mentor and guru. His is an intermittent character, who appears mostly as a spirit avatar throughout the opera, counseling Jobs after Otogawa's death. (In fact, the Chinese bass Wei Wu, as Otogawa, steals the show with his humorously self-deprecating appearances.)
The opera occurs in 20 non-linear short scenes that attempt to delineate the essence of Steve Jobs persona and genius. It makes innovative use of video production and sound and images supported brilliantly by George Lucas' Skywalker Studios. Particularly in the first half of the opera, the piece creates a fascinating and original combination of traditional orchestra (in this case, the superb Santa Fe Opera Orchestra) and exciting electronic replication of real Macintosh sounds, including internal machine sounds (like spinning hard drives and key clicks with intriguing external whizzing and beeping) that was so much the charm and pleasing aesthetic of Apple products when they appeared in the 1990s.
That said, the dramatics of the opera focus on its interpretation (highly dubious in my opinion) of Steve Jobs' life being transfigured by love. This ultimately reduces Jobs to a treacly, sentimental soap opera figure, rather than the transformative entrepreneurial genius he most certainly was. The flaw of the opera is in not capturing Jobs' entrepreneurial originality and towering vision--his revolutionary user-friendly idealism.
We all know Steve Jobs was a bit of a shit. The opera does pay early lip service to this reality. However, it veers off from exploring the more interesting motif of whether it is necessary to have a laser-focused ruthlessness, if one is intent on creating the impossible. Does the unflinching courage and uncompromising artistry of a Steve Jobs require one to be a great asshole?
I really wanted to like this opera about Steve Jobs. Jobs' biography is surely a bigger-than-life story. It lends itself to opera. Opera is better than any art form I know for addressing the subtle paradoxes of our humanity.
The Jobs opera ultimately doesn't work, however, because of the dramatic failure in the second half of the piece. It drifts off into a saccharine and insipid emphasis on "love saves the day" in the salvation figure of Jobs' second wife Laurene, who is presented as a boring and beatific combination of Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi. She is not interesting. The character Laurene is played by a lovely mezzo-soprano named Sascha Cooke and her arias are beautiful--which only makes the opera even more dramatically inert. Jobs himself ultimately comes off as an empty cypher, saved from unhappiness and a meaningless life by his saintly wife. Who cares?
The wonderful thing about "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" is that it is a courageous attempt to address the subtle and complex uniqueness of Jobs. And it is a serious effort to get to the essence of entrepreneurial artistry, for which that the Santa Fe Opera is owed a debt of gratitude by our entrepreneurial community.
The Santa Fe Opera production will be remounted in San Francisco and Seattle later this year. Despite its flaws, I recommend it. I sincerely hope it will spawn other artistic attempts to dramatize the entrepreneurial experience.