Calgary Opera audiences are no stranger to new, modern operas. During the years the late Bob McPhee was the Artistic Director of the company, Calgarians were treated to a variety of new operas by American and Canadian composers; and such was the confidence the audience had in McPhee’s good sense and judgement that these operas were positively, often enthusiastically, received. Recovering from the pandemic and continuing this previously established path, Calgary Opera offered yet another new opera as part of its current season. This time it was an opera based on the life of Apple Computer’s legendary CEO, Steve Jobs with a libretto by Mark Campbell (also the librettist for the highly successful Silent Night of a few years ago), and with music by Mason Bates: The (R)Evolution of Steve Jobs, a Canadian premiere. The tech-filled production was much enjoyed by the Calgary audience.
During his lifetime, Jobs was a controversial figure: imaginative and driven by his work, he was not always nice to those he worked with—a complex and compulsive person, he was both praised and reviled. All this is the subject matter of the new opera, as expressed in its enigmatic title, one the suggests both the evolution of Jobs’s personality and the revolution he created in the world of high tech. Filled with unusual effects, big choral numbers, powerful solo monologues, and ear-catching orchestration, this is an opera that captures an audience’s attention from the outset and never loses focus or flags interest.
Central to the success of the show was the impressive performance of Canadian baritone Brett Polegato in the title role. Moving easily around the stage, in the loping manner of Jobs himself, Polegato projected a persona that was the very incarnation of Jobs. He was able to bend his mode of singing to the different kinds of vocal demands required in the score, from the histrionic style of the show-stopping central monologue, to the intimacy of his scenes with his wife. Polegato was equally successful as the tortured, dominating entrepreneur as in the complex scenes with his long-suffering wife Laurene. The role of Laurene, played by Chinese-American mezzo soprano Sun-ly Pierce, is a substantial one in the opera and needs much vocal finesse. It was performed with excellent dramatic sensitivity and vocal control, and Pierce received a very substantial applause from the audience for her portrayal.
The vocally challenging tenor role of Steve Wozniak, the technological wizard behind the machines, was sung with rich expressivity by Canadian John Tessier, a role that demands sweetness of tone, but also strength. Of the many fine performances Tessier has given in Calgary, this surely was one of his best. His confrontation with Jobs’s impossible demands and aggression, but also the moments when the two are old buddies, were effective. And his substantial aria was, in vocal terms perhaps the single best moment of the production.
The role of Kōbun Chino Otogawa, a spiritual mentor to Jobs was sung by Chinese bass Wei Wu, Wu also sang this role in the Grammy Award-winning original performances of the opera, and his experience showed—an iconic portrayal of the character. The Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra, led on this occasion by American conductor Michael Christie (who also conducted the world premiere performances), was excellent; the crisp playing, the ensemble tight, and with fine individual solo spots for the various instruments. The Calgary Opera Chorus, in a particularly demanding role, showed themselves equal to the rigors of the complex stage movement, as well as the performance of the difficult choral score.
In the end, however, it was be the production itself that was the take-away for the audience. While this is an opera, the total effect of the production more closely resembles a modern stage show. The story is intense and effectively told, with many complexities of character to be realized, and the stage production, with its impressive, modern visual elements, suggests modern Broadway as much as traditional opera. The stage action was directed Tomer Zvulun and ably assisted by Rebecca Herman. Together they brought clear central vision to the action and its integration with the remarkable set, not to mention all its various gadgets. Visually, it was a feast for the eyes.
Altogether, this production captivated the opening night audience. The minimalistic score contains many interesting figurations for the orchestra, and if the vocal lines are not always melodically particularly grateful, neither are they an impediment to enjoying the show. This is an opera that, in the Calgary production, was worthy of its prestigious award and will be remembered for its excitement, remarkable orchestral score, and superlative production values.
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FEB 4 to 10 2023
BATES/CAMPBELL THE (R)EVOLUTION OF STEVE JOBS
CAST AND CREATIVE TEAMS
Conductor Michael Christie
Director Tomer Zvulun
Associate Director Rebecca Herman
Set/Costumes Jacob Climer
Lighting Robert Wierzel
Projection Design S. Katy Tucker
Paul Jobs Connor Hoppenbrouwers
Young Steve Jobs Aiden Brown
Steve Jobs Brett Polegato
Laurene Powell Jobs Sun-Ly Pierce
Kōbun Chino Otogawa Wei Wu
Teacher Simran Claire
Steve Wozniak John Tessier
Chrisann Brennan Melody Courage
Calgary Opera Chorus
THE SOCIAL BUZZ
Kenneth DeLong is a professor of music history at The University
of Calgary, where he teaches courses on the history of opera. He is the
classical music reviewer for The Calgary Herald and contributes to Opera Canada.