Dance and art

Q&A: Tomer Zvulun on "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs" and the emotional truths of opera

Atlanta Opera's general and artistic director, Tomer Zvulun, has been described by his colleagues as an impresario who specializes in "guerrilla opera."

Whether through a championship of cutting-edge modern compositions or insightful re-examinations of familiar pieces from the vast Romantic repertoire, Zvulun's work demonstrates an uncanny ability to challenge the status quo and tap into contemporary consciousness as few have done.

This weekend, Zvulun's production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobsby composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell, opens at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Center for a run through May 8.

The opera saw its world premiere at Santa Fe Opera in 2017. Zvulun's new mounting of the piece is a joint effort of five companies: Atlanta, Austin Opera (where the production premiered earlier this season) and opera companies in Kansas City, Utah. and Calgary.

ArtsATL sat down with Zvulun to hear his thoughts on what opera has to say to today's audiences.

ArtsATL: So how does this collaboration of five companies on The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs happen?

Tomer Zvulun: We started discussing it in 2019, before the pandemic. Our goal was to release it in 2021, so we've been working on it for over three years. Originally, it was a consortium of three companies. Austin had created another one of my productions, Silent night of Kevin Puts, and we started talking about doing a new production of Steve Jobs that could travel easily. Kansas City was also looking for something like that. Then, when we started sharing Jacob Climer's incredible production designs, other companies followed suit, especially Salt Lake City, and then Calgary, who wanted to do the Canadian premiere of the opera. So it all worked out very well.

Tomer Zvulun
Zvulun helped form a coalition of five opera companies across North America to stage "The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

ArtsATL: Why do you think this particular opera has generated so much excitement?

Zvulun: I think because it captures the spirit of the times. It captures the spirit of our time, for two reasons. One is the subject matter. Steve Jobs is one of the most iconic people of our time. I'm talking to you right now on my iPhone, looking at notes on my iPad, with my AirPods in my ears. His innovations have revolutionized many industries. Not just iPods or Pixar animation, he has revolutionized many, many things in our daily lives. He's a familiar and iconic figure.

Second, the music captures time because the man who wrote it, Mason Bates, is a young composer who, like Steve Jobs, is inspired by the intersection of art and technology. In addition to writing complex symphonic music for all the major orchestras from Chicago to San Francisco to Boston, he is also an electronic dance music DJ.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs incorporates the kind of beats and clicks he recorded from his old Mac equipment. When you listen to the score, you hear a combination of that melodic music in an electronica soundscape, a familiar and very modern sound. So we have a winning combination of a super pop culture figure like Jobs, with super catchy and super accessible music. Then, of course, you have a story that, in 95 minutes, gives us a window into the life of Steve Jobs. Everything catches fire and everyone wants in on it.

ArtsATL: What inspires you most about this play as a director?

Zvulun: I think it's a masterpiece. When I started working on it, I focused first on the obvious characteristics of the story and the man. When you think of Steve Jobs, you think of technology and revolution in the industry, right? You have all this stuff that you think this show is about. But really, the revelation of the play is that it's really the story of one man's struggle to accept his own mortality. It's something deeply human and universal.

We all have people we love and we have to face the fact that one day they won't be around anymore. That's why the play is so effective, because it's ultimately about Steve accepting that he's going to die and that he needs to connect with other important people. Steve is like the center of a wheel, and all the other characters are spokes in that hub. His wife Laurene, his ex-lover Chrisann, who is the mother of his child, his spiritual advisor Kōbun, and his business partner Steve Wozniak - these characters reflect the light of Steve Jobs in this opera and show us who he really was.

This piece is perfect for me. There have been two pieces in my career that have felt perfect, both contemporary works. One is Silent nightabout the Christmas truce during World War I, which couldn't be more relevant to our time, and this one, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. I have directed dozens of operas, but these two pieces fit me like a glove.

Steve Jobs
Zvulun says he is fascinated by Steve Jobs' dichotomy (Photo by Jeff Roffman)

ArtsATL: You have an excellent cast. Baritone John Moore seems to be making a specialty of the title role.

Zvulun: He's great. He really becomes Steve Jobs. When you look at him in the final scene, when Steve is gone and looking at his own memorial service, you forget that he is an artist. You look at Steve Jobs. It brings tears to my eyes just thinking about it.

ArtsATL: You mentioned the creations of Jacob Climer. Could you tell us a little bit about what we will see and hear?

Zvulun: The story of Steve Jobs focuses on dichotomies. On the one hand he was a barefoot hippie, on the other a sophisticated yuppie. He was a Zen Buddhist, but a powerful CEO. You have this idea of minimalism versus excess. That's what this production is inspired by, the dichotomy between this Zen, meditative world versus this crazy, high-flying logical world.

The set has 28 large televisions that allow us to project from inside and change colors and textures on a large scale. So there is a highly technological element to the design. But at the heart of it is a portrait of these people who are obsessed with identity and mortality. I think that's why this production is so successful; it combines a large-scale mural where you incorporate all these technological marvels - but then you can focus intimately on Steve Jobs, the man. It's all very cinematic, a series of long shots versus close-ups.

People are divided about Steve Jobs. There are those who subscribe to the school that he was a complete narcissist, and there are people who revere the ground he walked on. I think this dichotomy is fascinating.

ArtsATL: People are also divided on contemporary opera. They say you risk alienating half your audience if you program contemporary works, but you risk alienating the other half if you don't.

Zvulun: This is absolutely true, although the type of business participation we see with Steve Jobs is unprecedented in our history. Artistic directors have to be very careful about programming. You can't fill a season with contemporary opera; it won't work. There is a commercial logic. You can't make a big bet like Steve Jobs each season on the main stage. I program at least one contemporary opera each year, but often it will be a chamber opera, so we show the audience that there are other interesting things out there without taking the financial risk that is associated with a mainstage production. It's our responsibility to do these things, but there's also a smart way to do it.

ArtsATL: How do you think opera informs our society today? Why should we care?

Zvulun: Because no other art form crystallizes emotion as well as music, and even music is not enough without the human voice. The human voice takes you where nothing else can go; it gives you a dimension that spoken drama, film or sculpture - as much as I love them - cannot give in the same way. Operas are about human experiences that have never changed. They are about love and sex, however you understand that, and death. Those are the main things that drive us in this world, because we are mortal and want to be loved. The other thing that drives us is power. The classical operas are about that.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is all about these things too - love, power and death.


Mark Thomas Ketterson is a Chicago-based art critic and writer. He is the Chicago correspondent for Opera news magazine, and has also written for Playbillthe Chicago Tribune and other publications.

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