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Calgary hosts Canadian premiere of Grammy-winning opera about Steve Jobs


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

It did for Mason Bates, the composer behind The [R]evolution of Steve Jobs, which has its Canadian premiere at the Jubilee Auditorium Saturday night.

"Oh man, his life was the stuff of opera. We don't necessarily think of that – Steve Jobs singing? But he had obsession, betrayal, passion, ultimately death. He died perhaps because he tried to control his own cancer with carrot diets," he says.

"Steve Jobs is absolutely an operatic figure," he says. "And the way his wife grounded him is a story that works so well onstage."

Part of what makes Jobs a good subject to explore through opera is that there was a constant tension between his tech roots and his obsession with design.

"What's interesting about Steve Jobs is he's a mogul, a tech visionary who kind of presents as an artist," Bates says.  "He's the guy that when he got his first prototype of the iPhone, it had scratches on it and he said, 'I want it in glass and I want it in six weeks' because they were launching it.

"That's not a move that a normal tech mogul would pull. They're very careful people."

Brett Polegato plays Steve Jobs in The Revolution of Steve Jobs

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

"Artists can be demanding, they can be terrible managers of people," he says. "They can throw tantrums in the way that a rock and roll artist might and so that's the essential thing that's so interesting about him."

And while dramatic storytelling tends to feature a hero and an anti-hero in conflict, Bates says in The [R]evolution of Steve Jobs, they're the same person.

"He's both protagonist and antagonist. He convinces everyone in the opening product launch scene that they're witnessing the birth of a new civilization and yet you can watch him basically disown his daughter because he just didn't want to deal with her.

"Those are very contradictory impulses."

To create a contemporary, English-language opera about Silicon Valley, Bates was forced to expand the boundaries of what we have come to think of as operatic sound – even though in other parts, he delivers the story in quite traditional tones.

"On the surface of this opera we have a lot of new elements," he says. "We have techno beats. We have sound design, where you hear actual samples of Macintosh computers from a long time ago.

"We have a non-linear narrative that looks at different elements of his life, juxtaposes them – but if you look under the hood, this has a lot of elements that are really resonating with opera history.

"We have really lyrical arias. We have real characters, who you really care about – so it's this mix of new and old that I think has allowed this piece to be embraced by a lot of audiences around the U.S. I'm so thankful for Calgary."

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

"You basically can't escape Jobs' influence," he says.

"You can't avoid him and we all carry a piece of him in our pocket and some of the issues in Steve Job's life, like how to control a messy life – he always wanted everything to be sleek and easy to deal with – well you can't fire people with one button. People don't have (just) one button.

"Now we deal with that," he says. "How many conversations have you had mediated by an Apple device where you just thought, I wish we were in the same room?"

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

"There's a turtleneck and some jeans," Bates says. "You don't need 50 costume changes."

With files from Ian White Top Stories

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