Austin Opera Probes the Power and Perils of Connection With The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
The local company launches a new collaborative production for the nation
"We choose pieces that we think will make sense for Austin." So says Austin Opera general director and CEO Annie Burridge, and that's why the company is mounting a new production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a timely work for a city that she described as being "at the intersection of innovation and barbecue."
Directed by Tomer Zvulun and conducted by Timothy Myers, this new production brings John Moore back to the titular role (which he previously performed in Seattle) as the Apple grower observes his life, career, and often flawed relationship with his former romantic partner, Chrisann Brennan (Madison Leonard), his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs (Sarah Larsen), his friend and technological peer, Steve Wozniak (Bille Bruley), and his spiritual mentor, Zen Buddhist priest Kobun Chino Otogawa (Wei Wu). Burridge called it "a very honest portrayal. … It shows the ugly, it shows the love and the stability that Laurene bought to his life, it shows some of the good parts of his relationship to Chrisann, but also some of the brutal parts where he denied paternity to [their daughter] Lisa."
Unlike the tech industry where products are often rushed to market, staging an opera is a complicated process that can take half a decade. The original 2017 production of Steve Jobs was a Grammy-winning smash for commissioning company Santa Fe Opera, but Burridge was planning an Austin staging even before those accolades and successes. Her planning started in 2016, just as she joined Austin Opera from Opera Philadelphia, and she'd even discussed making the original version a co-production with Santa Fe. Unfortunately, she said, "when it got down to brass tacks, it would have cost two to three times as much as a standard production, [and] I didn't think in my first few weeks on the job I should commit to that."
It was the combination of composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell that initially intrigued her, and being in the audience on opening night in Santa Fe only reinforced her interest, especially because of how well Bates' music melded with the subject material. "What he's known for is the incorporation of electronic sounds into really exciting and accessible classical music. … He's also been a house DJ, so there's a driving, rhythmic impulse to his music that aligns so perfectly to what you'd imagine the soundtrack to innovation might be." Equally, she found Campbell's libretto surprising. "I didn't expect a portrait of a man who was so mercurial and volatile to be so touching." Austin Opera's great success in 2019 with Zvulun's staging of Campbell's Pulitzer Prize-winning Silent Night further reinforced the idea that this was the right work for this audience and the right director for this piece, and so dates were set for 2021 – which, of course, never happened, thanks to COVID-19.
While Austin Opera moved into the virtual space early, as well as holding drive-in performances with Blue Starlite Mini Urban Drive-In, the decision was made to push back this production until they were able to mount in-person performances again. The company returned late last year with Tosca and The Marriage of Figaro, and even with the Omicron surge the decision was made to keep the scheduled dates for Steve Jobs, rather than risk losing it completely. "You get to a point where you can't postpone. These artists are booked for the next few years, so you can't reassemble the team. You've just got to go and throw all the safety precautions you can around it."
This wasn't just about putting on a show in Austin. While the idea of a co-production with Santa Fe fell through, Burridge was still committed to creating something within the broader national opera community, "a physical production that we can put on stage that can be accessed by other companies." Most especially, the production would be geared for those on the same tier as Austin, "the under $10 million companies." Talks began with Atlanta Opera, then Kansas City joined, and over the pandemic the ranks of the consortium swelled. "We now have Utah and Calgary also, so we're all sharing the costs."
Suitably for the opera's subject matter, the ongoing tech diaspora from the coasts to Austin has put an additional pressure on the company to excel beyond what would be expected from a smaller company in a smaller city. With those newly minted Austinites, she said, "if they like opera, they've seen opera in New York or L.A. or San Francisco, so we have to put something on stage that would pass muster in those major markets. The way we can do that as a $4-5 million organization is to partner with other opera companies." However, this isn't just about financing, Burridge clarified. Dozens of planned productions nationally have been abandoned because of the pandemic, so "it's a testament to the shared belief in this piece and this production that it stayed on everyone's schedule."
The result is a production, with scenic and costume design by Jacob A. Climer and projection design by S. Katy Tucker, that leans into the high-tech aspects of the story. Burridge explained, "The stage is covered in screens and computer monitors, and it does rely on the highest available projection quality technology in theatre." Fitting the original collaborative remit it's intended to be flexible, with a modular set that can be restructured to fit the performance space. "If you're a symphony hall, for example, you can perform it with the orchestra behind the set," Burridge said, and that's important as Bates trails only John Adams as the modern American composer most likely to be performed by American symphony orchestras.
For Burridge, it's the emotional center of the opera that audiences will associate with, and that's a core component of Jobs' technological ambitions that he did not always replicate in his personal life. "It asks us some questions about what matters. What are the wonderful things about how seamlessly we are all connected now, and what are some of the traps and dangers."
Austin Opera presents The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Feb. 5-6, at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, 701 W. Riverside. Feb. 3 performance canceled due to weather: contact venue for information. austinopera.org.