SANTA FE (NYTIMES) - The products he created are some of the most innovative and important of our time. But if Steve Jobs the man is interesting, it's because he was such a jerk. He's frustrating fodder for that eternal question: How could someone with such elegant, sensitive visions be so unremittingly wilful, tyrannical, unfeeling, ungiving?
Why, in other words, aren't good artists always good people?
It's because, of course, they're human. That's what the much-in-demand composer Mason Bates and the librettist Mark Campbell don't seem to have understood in writing The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a trudging new opera about the maestro of Apple that had its premiere at the Santa Fe Opera on Saturday and will travel to San Francisco and Seattle in coming seasons.
Bates and Campbell have replaced a truly human, if essentially undramatic, story - of a man who by most accounts was consistently charismatically intolerable from his birth in 1955 until his death in 2011 - with a sappier, staler arc: A good guy loses his way and then finds it, redeemed by the love of a saintly woman.
The opera's Jobs starts off a sweet, nerdily modest inventor and an ardent boyfriend before veering into darkness. He encourages his lover to have an abortion and, when she refuses, denies he's the child's father; jealously guards control of the company he founds; spurns his friends and ignores his family; and denies the existence of the cancer that's killing him.
This nastiness all really happened, as anyone who's read Walter Isaacson's sprawling biography or seen Danny Boyle's tense film (both titled, with blessed simplicity, Steve Jobs) will know. The 90-minute opera's fiction, which rings false, is that Jobs started and ended a different person than he was in the middle.
Written in a single, 20-scene act, Campbell's libretto - in which Apple, which didn't authorise the opera, is never mentioned by name - suggests that the unpleasant shift in his character was a result of Jobs' desire to "control all those mad and messy moments" of his life. He's forgotten, in other words, the Zen Buddhist teachings he embraced as a young man.
Once he remembers, spurred by his spiritual adviser, Kobun Chino Otogawa, and his wife, Laurene Powell Jobs, he embraces change, connection, death - the whole mess. At the end of the opera, Laurene proposes, amusingly if preposterously, that this beneficent "Version 2.0 of Steve" would say of his beloved phones: "Please buy them, but don't spend your life on them." The opera is fatally caught between its desires to diligently check off biographical boxes and to shape that biography, contrary to fact, into the happy-ending shape of a meet-cute romance.
For this Silicon Valley story, Bates' tech-friendly music must have seemed the perfect fit. Over the past decade, he has earned prestigious appointments - residencies at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, a close association with the San Francisco Symphony - on the strength of blandly affable forced marriages of rave-style electronic beats and Bernstein-style orchestral lushness. On occasion he even spins records as, sigh, DJ Masonic.
There's a hint of the score he might have made at the very start of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs: a mysterious, ominous passage of clicks, beeps and sighs, an electronic world yearning to become flesh and blood.
But Bates soon begins to rely on alternating modes of dogged propulsion and layer-cake grandiosity. As Jobs doubles over with illness after a product launch, the music, conducted by Michael Christie, grinds to a halt - relying, in a bizarrely cliched move, on a sound evoking the stock effect of an alien spaceship powering down its engines. Bates more or less has a single way of handling the climaxes of interpersonal confrontations: big, thwacking chords, separated by yawning silences. Interludes between many of the scenes often feel pointless, their dramatic function vague - Jobs wanders around, looking confused - and their musical content mostly vamping.
Watch Michael Fassbender's tightly coiled performance in the title role of the Boyle film for evidence of the man that an Apple executive once described as "a boxer, aggressive and elusively graceful, or like an elegant jungle cat ready to spring at its prey." There's nothing graceful or seductive about the opera's blustery, earnest Jobs (here the underpowered, ineffectual baritone Edward Parks): You can't imagine this guy ever making anyone do anything.
As always, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a beating heart onstage, a warm and sympathetic presence as Laurene. And as always, the Santa Fe Opera's chorus, led since 2008 by Susanne Sheston, is superb as a changeable array of employees, journalists and Buddhist adherents.
Campbell writes in a program note that Charles MacKay, Santa Fe Opera's general director, had just one instruction: "Make sure the audience thinks twice before they reach for their phones after the performance." It's a sign of the opera's failure, then, that after the final orchestral swell I took my battered iPhone 6 out of my pocket without much thought at all - living very much in the world Jobs created but already forgetting this limp telling of his story.