At 420 years old, opera is a venerable art form: The first recorded opera was Jacopo Peri’s Dafne, which premiered in Florence, Italy, in 1597. But opera also is ever young. New works are written and regularly performed today, and greeted with much applause by audiences. That’s certainly long been the case at The Santa Fe Opera. Since the first season in 1957, the company has regularly commissioned and premiered new operas––14 to date––and has given the American premieres of some 45 other pieces.
This 2017 season has its premiere as well. The spotlighted opera is The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, with music by Mason Bates, and libretto by Mark Campbell. Yes, the opera is an exploration of the life, work and inner journey of techno-giant Steve Jobs, who made the Apple brand ubiquitous. It is being awaited with anticipation not only by operatic cognoscenti, but by those immersed in the contemporary Zeitgeist of computers, technology and global information access.
Perhaps you’re a bit dubious about opera in general, let alone a brand-new work. According to Steve Jobs librettist Mark Campbell, you don’t need to be. For all its high-end artistic reputation, he says, opera is all about entertainment––and opera companies today know it. “Opera companies are choosing stories that will appeal to audiences of all kinds and all ages,” when commissioning, Mark says. “We’re telling stories here. We’re creating a whole new sense of identity for American opera. It’s an identity that emphasizes both music and theater, and different ways of entertainment. We’re telling stories here, but I do believe that our first job is to find an entertaining way to tell it. I don’t use the word entertainment as reductive at all. I think of my audience first. They’re the ones who had to pay for the ticket, hire the babysitter. They could have stayed home and watched TV. Instead, they’re going to a new opera.”
Mark can attest to contemporary opera’s success. His past librettos for new operas include Silent Night, The Shining (yes, based on that book) and The Manchurian Candidate (based in another well-known literary source). Besides (R)Evolution, he has written libretti for five operas premiering in 2017 at Opera Philadelphia, Minnesota Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Pittsburgh Opera and Boston Lyric Opera. He’s also completed the libretto for an opera about Georgia O’Keeffe, set for performance in 2019 at Opera Parallèle in San Francisco.
Steve Jobs, it was Mason’s idea to write an opera about Steve Jobs,” Mark says. “And I agreed to do it because I wanted to work with Mason. But the more I read about the man, and the more I got to understand his influence on our culture—both good and bad—the more I saw him as a terrific subject for an opera.” Once The Santa Fe Opera agreed to the idea, “There was no turning back,” Mark says. “Who in their right mind would turn down a commission from The Santa Fe Opera? The company is not only a global destination for opera lovers, it has been committed to producing new work since its very beginning. And then there is the sheer physical beauty of the opera house and its surroundings; I knew I needed to honor that beauty and added a scene in the first 30 minutes of the opera in which the back wall of the theatre will open up to reveal a Santa Fe sunset.”
To produce the libretto, Mark first delved into everything he could find to read about Jobs. Then he put all his research aside, and began to consider the story as if it were fiction. This gave him a broad field for creativity. From there, he wrote, adapted and discarded around 20 outlines before settling on one that worked for him. Then, he wrote the libretto and sent it to Mason, who soon began to respond with questions about further adaptations of the words to suit the music as it was being written.
Mark says the number of emails between him and Mason likely reached the thousands, “because he’s on the West Coast and I’m on the East. They’re all about making the story better: Is this is the right music for this moment, and could the words change to adapt to it in some way?”
Does Mark have any special advice for operagoers––such as whether or not they should do some research before going? He laughs at this. “Oh, no. No, no, no. I would never ask an audience member to do any research. I do the research. All they have to do is buy a ticket and sit down and be open to a new experience. I think there are things about this opera that are radical in terms of the storytelling, in terms of the music, in terms of the presentation. But there is certainly nothing in this opera that is inaccessible to anyone.”
To help ensure that, “We have to make sure at every point that the audience knows where they are in the story. That’s a challenge for all of us. Questioning is OK, but confused is never OK. If they’re confused, they’re not going to listen to Mason’s brilliant music, they’re not going to listen to the few laugh lines that I put in. No audience member laughs if they’re confused. We want them to know where they are at all times,” Mark says. “I hope our percentage of attendees at the opera includes 15 or 20 percent of people who have never been to an opera before, and who will now go because of Steve Jobs. That would make me happy.”
For more information about Mason Bates and Mark Campbell, visit masonbates.com and markcampbellwords.com. To order tickets for the 2017 Santa Fe Opera season, call 505.986.5900 or visit santafeopera.org.
SANTA FE OPERA 2017 SEASON
July 5-Aug. 26, 2017, Santa Fe Opera Theater
Die Fledermaus by Johann Strauss, Jr.
June 30; July 5, 8, 14; Aug. 1, 7, 14, 19, 26
Sung in English with English dialogue
Lucia di Lammermoor by Gaetano Donizetti
July 1, 7, 12, 21, 31; Aug. 5, 8, 12, 16, 24
Sung in Italian
The Golden Cockerel by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov
July 15, 19, 28; Aug. 3, 9, 18
Sung in Russian
The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs by Mason Bates, with libretto by Mark Campbell
July 22, 26; Aug. 4, 10, 15, 25
Sung in English
Alcina by George Frideric Handel
July 29; Aug. 2, 11, 17, 23
Sung in Italian