Move over, Figaro: there’s a new operatic hero in town, and he’s swapped the powdered wig for a black turtleneck. This Saturday, the Atlanta Opera kicks off a four-show run of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which chronicles the life of the late Steve Jobs, the tech visionary, futurist guru, and founder and CEO of Apple Computers. Atlanta Opera’s production, jointly produced with the Austin Opera and the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, is directed by Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, and stars John Moore in the title role as Jobs. Set to a score that combines live instruments with electronic soundscapes generated by Mac laptops, (R)evolution is a thoroughly contemporary foray into the same human complexities that have dazzled opera audiences for centuries.
Commissioned by the Santa Fe Opera in 2017, the show was created by DJ/composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell. Its first run sold out, prompting the theater to add an extra performance, and the live recording went on to win several Grammys, including Best Opera. It was composer Mark Bates’ first opera: a Guggenheim fellow and an accomplished DJ, Bates is known for his instrumental compositions welding music and technology, but a biographic opera about a perfectionist tech guru was a new realm. “His collisions with the fact that he wanted to make everything sleek and controllable—yet life is not controllable—is a fascinating topic for an opera,” Bates told NPR in 2017. He and Mark Campbell, a Pulitzer Prize-winning librettist, created a nonlinear narrative of Jobs’s life that centers his complicated personal relationships and his lifelong devotion to Zen Buddhism, which inspired much of the philosophy behind Apple’s design and sensibility.
While the show has been a runaway success, the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has meant that only a handful of audiences have had a chance to see it: Atlanta’s production, delayed over two years, still feels like something of a world premiere. Atlanta Opera Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun, who conceived the joint production, was immediately drawn to the show’s dynamic musicality and its treatment of the quixotic protagonist.
“It’s a show about technology, innovation, invention,” he told Atlanta. “But at the end of it, what it is about is our struggle with our own mortality.” Jobs died of pancreatic cancer in 2011; the opera’s narrative arc hinges on the dissonance between his deep desire for control and the loss of it that death inevitably delivers.
The cult-like persona Jobs developed in life has intensified in death, but Campbell and Bates’s show never loses sight of the complicated human at the heart of its story. The small cast of characters features both Laureen Jobs, his wife of many years, and Chrisann Brennan, mother of Jobs’ daughter Lisa, whose paternity he denied for many years. That Steve Jobs was both a cold-eyed tech executive and a charismatic engine of creativity makes for potent subject matter onstage.
It also makes him a fascinating character to embody, said John Moore, who’ll sing the role of Jobs for most of this production tour. Moore has found commonalities that connect him to the mercurial Jobs, both in life and work, and which have helped him anchor his portrayal. “For me, the collaborative experience of creating this opera, it feels like what I’ve read in terms of how Steve Jobs collaborated with the artist that created the devices we all cherish,” Moore said on a recent phone call. “That makes the process meaningful and joyful beyond just getting the notes right.”
Moore, who grew up singing in the Catholic church, sees the spiritual resonance of what Jobs created in the Apple company, both in his vision for the future of technology, and the almost ritualistic intentionality behind the brand. Scholars have likened Apple stores—with their vertiginous architecture and iconic design—to temples of worship; Moore noted how, just as churchgoers tithe 10 percent of their income, many of us devote similar funds towards membership in the Apple community. “Apple, I believe, is at the forefront of what is going to be the spiritual glue that holds us together moving forward in the technological age,” Moore said.
Is Jobs a Messianic figure, then? Moore demurred with a laugh. “I have to be careful [saying] that,” he said. But he thinks Jobs’s great gift to us was to reinforce our deeply human relationship with technology. “Computers were built by basically reengineering the brain,” he noted. “These things aren’t foreign to us—they are us.”
Director Tomer Zvulun shares Moore’s deep respect for the titanic subject of (R)evolution. He likens the tension of Jobs’ life—which was internally rife with chaos but devoted to the pursuit of an externally balanced, unified whole—to Prometheus, who also sacrificed for the furtherment of humankind: “He’s a fascinating character.” And John Moore, Zvulun said, is uniquely suited to the role of Jobs, embodying him with an actor’s poise, which can be a rare skill in an opera singer. “John represents a new generation of singers that are also actors,” Zvulun explained. “When you watch him, you see the fruits of that labor.”
Zvulun’s been Atlanta Opera’s artistic director for almost ten years, and he’s watched the city’s audiences evolve, too. He arrived in Atlanta in 2013, after seven seasons at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, expecting a traditional audience with a taste for classical opera. But as the city has grown, so too has its curiosity: “The audience in Atlanta has an appetite for a lot of adventurous things,” he said. “It’s been very exciting.”
Though every season features some beloved classics—this year will feature Madama Butterfly and Mozart’s Don Giovanni—Zvulun has taken the company in bold directions of late, and Atlanta’s audiences seems eager to follow. When the pandemic shuttered indoor performances in 2020, Atlanta Opera made headlines with its whimsical outdoor circus tent shows. In Zvulun’s hands, the company has gone from three shows a year to six, with a larger staff, bigger budget, and a much more challenging oeuvre. This June, they’ll take over Pullman Yards in Kirkwood for the Come As You Are Festival, which features the musical Cabaret and a chamber opera that follows the life of a transgender woman.
For Zvulun, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs embodies opera’s bold venturing into the future. The production features a wall of 28 televisions, using technology to migrate between time periods and settings “in a very seamless and cinematic way.” And Bates’ amalgam of live instrumentation and computer-generated sound approaches music through a new generational lens, building bridges between a classical art form and new, younger audiences.
But at its heart, Zvulun is quick to note, (R)evolution is still driven by the same human dramas that have lit up the stage for time immemorial. “It’s about this person who is vulnerable and conflicted, who has those struggles with his own mortality,” Zvulun said. “I think that’s what makes this opera so powerful and successful.”
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs plays at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre for four performances beginning Saturday, April 30. Learn more here.