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  • New Opera in Santa Fe:The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
  • Johanna Keller (bio)

In 2005, when Steve Jobs was secretly battling the cancer that would kill him six years later, he delivered a startling commencement speech at Stanford University. He began, "Today I want to tell you three stories from my life. That's it. No big deal. Just three stories." The first two dealt with the life lessons obtained when he dropped out of school and later got fired from Apple. In the third, he revealed his cancer diagnosis, adding that knowing he would be dead soon "is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life." No big deal, indeed.

Jobs had many talents, including a genius for simplification. He demanded it from himself in his stripped-down lifestyle, his uniform of jeans and turtleneck, and his restrictive diet. He demanded simplicity over and over from engineers, designers, artists, inventors, manufacturers, marketers, and the thousands of employees who, under his autocratic leadership, created such innovative products as the iMac, iPod, iPad, and the iPhone. In his lifelong pursuit of streamlined design in all aspects of his businesses, he solved the problems of how to distribute digital entertainment (iTunes), how to share data across platforms (iCloud), how to create with digital animation (Pixar), and how to design a brick-and-mortar retail site that efficiently moves tech merchandise (the Apple Store).

I missed out on the Steve Jobs fan phenomenon. During his lifetime, I found myself bemused and puzzled by news accounts of the hysteria surrounding the annual Macworld event that unveiled the latest and greatest [End Page 633] product, as well as by the sheeple who camped out overnight in order to be among the first to own Apple's latest iteration. I was stupefied by the enormous outpouring of grief at his death in 2011.

Only recently have I begun to realize the extent to which Jobs affects my everyday life. While on the road, I am writing this on my MacBook Air; it is being saved to iCloud so that I can access it on my two iPads or the MacBook Pro back in my office. And then there is my iPhone 6s. Though I am not an addicted screen-gazer, I confess that what Jobs dubbed the "one device" has changed my habits of communication and digital consumption. Even for those without Apple products, Jobs has profoundly changed what we expect from our electronic gadgets.

Jobs has become a mythic figure, his life and achievements explored in several documentary films, a Hollywood biopic, and many books. The most comprehensive biography is by Walter Isaacson, former managing editor of Time magazine and the CEO of the Aspen Institute, who also authored books on Benjamin Franklin, Einstein, and Kissinger. No praise is too high for Isaacson's 2011 Steve Jobs, which explains the development of products and innovations while exploring Jobs's business acumen, all-consuming ambition, prodigious energy and discipline, and does not skip his often-fractured relationships, as well as his well-known disregard for and downright cruelty toward others. Unlike the designs of his products, Jobs was complicated.

These complexities are portrayed in the new opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. The deeply moving libretto by Mark Campbell is animated by the brilliantly wide-ranging electronic and acoustic music of Mason Bates, and the result is an opera as carefully calibrated and elegantly designed as an Apple product—and as innovative. Rather than depending on the celebrity wow factor to fill the gaps (as so many recent so-called "news-reel" operas have done), (R)evolution uses the life of Jobs to grapple with questions of human consciousness, creativity, and connection. At its world premiere in July at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico, it was greeted with wild enthusiasm by the audience, and it will soon be heard in San Francisco and Seattle. Expect to see it booked elsewhere in years to come.

The action moves quickly, packing the story into 110 minutes performed without intermission. It opens in 1965 in a California garage—but not that garage, which will come later...


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pp. 633-636
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