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Steve Jobs opera gets Canadian premiere in Calgary

The iPhone changed the world, but does that make a story exploring the life of Steve Jobs an opera?

It did for Mason Bates, the composer behind it the [R]Development of Steve Jobswhich has its Canadian premiere on Saturday night at the Jubilee Auditorium.

“Oh man, his life was the stuff of the opera. We don’t necessarily think about it – Steve Jobs sings? But he had obsession, betrayal, passion, ultimately death. He may have died trying to control his own cancer with carrot diets,” he says.

“Steve Jobs is an absolute operatic figure,” he says. “And the way his wife grounded him is a story that works so well on stage.”

Part of what makes Jobs a good subject to explore in opera is the constant tension between his technical roots and his obsession with design.

“The interesting thing about Steve Jobs is that he’s a mogul, a tech visionary who presents himself as an artist in a way,” says Bates. “He’s the guy that when he got his first prototype iPhone, it had scratches on it and he said, ‘I want it in glass and I want it in six weeks’ because they put it out there.

“It’s not a move a normal tech mogul would take. They are very careful people.”

Brett Polegato plays Steve Jobs in The Steve Jobs Revolution.

Whereas artists, says Bates, are volatile, unpredictable and prone to unleashing drama.

“Artists can be demanding, they can be terrible people managers,” he says. “You can throw tantrums like a rock ‘n’ roll artist, and that’s the essence of what’s so interesting about him.”

And while dramatic storytelling tends to bring a hero and an antihero into conflict, Bates says the [R]Development of Steve Jobsthey are the same person.

“He is both protagonist and antagonist. He convinces everyone in the launch scene that they are witnessing the birth of a new civilization, yet he can be seen essentially disowning his daughter because he just didn’t want to deal with her.

“These are very contradictory impulses.”

In order to create a contemporary, English-language opera about Silicon Valley, Bates was forced to push the boundaries of what we understand by operatic sound — even if he tells the story in rather traditional tones in other parts.

“On the surface of this opera we have many new elements,” he says. “We have techno beats. We have sound design where you will hear real samples from Macintosh computers from a long time ago.

“We have a non-linear narrative that looks at different elements of his life and juxtaposes them – but when you look under the hood, it has a lot of elements that really resonate with the operatic story.

“We have really lyrical arias. We’ve got real characters that you really care about – so it’s that mix of new and old that I think this play has been embraced by a lot of viewers in the US that I’m so thankful for in Calgary.”

Bates is aware that he created the opera on a MacBook Pro and communicated with librettist Mark Campbell via iPhone, two of Jobs’ greatest accomplishments.

“You really can’t escape the influence of Jobs,” he says.

“You can’t avoid it and we all carry a piece of it in our pocket and some of the issues in Steve Jobs’ life, like how to control a messy life – he always wanted everything to be smooth and easy to handle – well you can’t fire people with a button, people don’t have (just) a button.

“We’re dealing with that now,” he says. “How many conversations have you had on an Apple device where you just thought I wish we were in the same room?”

One thing that wasn’t very complicated in creating the Canadian premiere of a contemporary opera about a very complex man was the wardrobe.

“There’s a turtleneck and jeans,” says Bates. “You don’t need 50 costume changes.”

With files by Ian White

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