Steve Jobs: The Good, The Bad, and the Really Ugly

Icy tyrant or charismatic genius: who was Steve Jobs?

Posted Jul 23, 2017

It is really difficult to stage an opera about a genius whose feelings were bottled up and corked for most of his life, and whose interactions with his employees and early love interest were largely abusive, cold, and remorseless. You hope that the opera will open a window into his soul so that you can understand what made him the brilliant, icy tyrant he was. And when the opera is The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs and it’s a world premiere at the Santa Fe Opera, expectations soar above the world-famous opera house and hang in the dramatic high desert skies of Santa Fe.

The opening night audience was not disappointed. Au contraire, they leapt to their feet, en masse, and responded with the loud enthusiasm that usually greets a megastar or sports team. And as they bounded out to the parking lot after the final bow, and called out to each other about how exciting and excellent the opera was, I kind of withdrew into myself. I did not share their enthusiasm, although there were things I loved—like the dramatic mezzo soprano, Sasha Cooke, who played Steve’s wife Laurene with gravitas and compassion; the brilliant score of composer Mason Bates who combined electronic, symphonic, Eastern, Western, acoustical, Mac-like elements that somehow, mystically, worked together, like a magnificent film score; the lush bass of Steve’s Buddhist spiritual advisor Wei Wu;  the charming, rebellious duets of Steve and Woz; the gorgeous, minimalist set design with projections on panels that suggested everything from Steve’s garage to conference halls to the inside of a computer to the enso, the Buddhist circle that represents eternity and enlightenment; the use of humor and a normal, everyday way of speaking instead of stilted, formal diction. 

The problem, to me, resided in the depiction and portrayal of Steve Jobs. One of the basic rules of good theatre/drama/performance is that you show the audience, instead of telling the audience. This entire opera is about telling; it is exposition, memory, enumeration of what Steve did, not who he really was. He reacts negatively and critically to those who are creating around him, but you never see him creating much himself. Edward Parks, who portrays Steve Jobs, wanders around the stage, into and out of scenes, and there is little or no evidence of either engagement or the magnetic charisma for which Jobs was famous. And as the opera unfolds, we learn nothing about what is going on inside of him, in either heart or head.  In fact, the success of the opera depends upon the audience knowing a lot about the Apple wizard and bringing it to the performance before the story begins.  We all love our Apple products; now help us understand the man who took the first bite out of the apple.

Pivotal moments in the opera—like when Steve takes LSD, spurns his pregnant girlfriend, denies his paternity, refuses to give someone who was with him from the beginning any severance pay or benefits, accepts his partner Woz’s departure–are truncated. Something happens, and then the rejected or defeated or angry character walks off stage. On to the next. We needed to stay with these seminal events, to experience them, to FEEL them, to see all the characters breathe, feel, and live. Instead, we had to read in our own feelings about each moment, because they certainly were not explored in the opera itself.

Near the end, Laurene tells Steve she can’t take it any more. He is sick, dying, actually, and he just keeps denying it, working relentlessly, and paying scant attention to his children and wife. Steve, in what should have been a very significant scene, briefly holds onto Laurene, who has anchored him and supported him for so many years, and asks her not to go. And then, surprisingly,  she sings about how he became human, and changed. She talks about the person version 2.0 of Steve would have been –someone who looks up, looks around, steals another kiss, appreciates everything in the natural world and, by extension, those around him. Maybe I missed something. Actually, I definitely missed something. That was the big transformation? A one-off moment where a man asks his wife not to go, and that shows his evolution from machine to man?

One of the interesting themes of the opera is machines vs humans. The latter, Laurene sings, are messy and chaotic when you look inside. But Steve has already stated his position near the beginning of the opera—he wants to create a machine that works brilliantly and no one needs to look inside or know how it functions. Sounds like a description of himself.

A friend, who was at opening night, mentioned to me that Steve Jobs was adopted, and another friend added that she had read that he had a very hard beginning with little initial maternal bonding. Those facts, had they been introduced into the opera, would have changed everything. It would have underscored the horror of him denying paternity of his own child, thereby replicating his own suffering. It might have helped to explain why he was so emotionally shut down. It might have indicated that he was hurt when his own company threw him out, which would have echoed his own parents giving him away. It would have supplied heft to the moment when he expresses to Laurene that he doesn’t want her to go. It would resonate each time he cut off an employee or his partner Woz.  It would have screamed with the irony that the man who contributed most to the world in terms of connectivity was so unconnected himself. And, personally, it would have helped me connect to the opera.

I am not suggesting that introducing the adoption was the only way to go with this opera. It is just one of many possibilities. But I am suggesting that the opera needed depth, insight, emotion, exploration, rather than a string of non-linear events in the charismatic genius’s life.

If one believes in odds, then the odds are that you will love this opera, as most or all of the audience did. And audience demand must be very strong, because they have just added an extra performance. I wish the Santa Fe Opera great success with their world premiere.

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Judith Fein is an award-winning international travel writer, speaker, blogger, who directed a theatre troupe for nine years, taught acting and directing, and frequently writes about performance. She was also the librettist for the opera The Hotel Eden, with music by Henry Mollicone.