A quick scan of the most successful new operas in the past 50 years shows that contemporary subjects often sell and attract new audiences
The (R)evolution of Opera
Steve Jobs the man may have left this world, but Steve Jobs the myth is alive and well.
The iconic co-founder of Apple, the world’s most valuable company, and hero to thousands of Silicon Valley wannabes, has now also become the subject of an opera.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, premiered by the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico this month, is this season’s hottest operatic ticket. Flights have been booked. Hotels reserved. And the buzz is palpable in the Twittersphere.
It all has as much to do with the subject matter as the calibre of artists associated with it.
While alive, Jobs’s charismatic keynotes at the annual Apple conferences were always a tech highlight. And despite his death in 2011 from cancer, at the age of 56, Jobs can still command an audience.
Online comment boards continue to wax lyrical about his genius. But it was Jobs himself who arguably formalised his own myth by authorising Walter Isaacson’s 2011 biography Steve Jobs. Many more followed.
Then in 2015, Slumdog Millionaire director Danny Boyle added further layers to the Jobs mystique.
Revelling in the mutation of Jobs’s 1970s hippy idealism into the 1980s corporate behemoth that Apple became, actor Michael Fassbender presented Jobs as a troubled visionary, trapped by his own search for perfection – a classic Greek tragedy.
According to its creators, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs runs along similar lines.
The plot moves back and forth through time: from the garage of the Jobs’s family home in 1965, to the stage of a San Francisco convention centre in 2007, via Apple’s corporate headquarters in Cupertino, California, during the 1980s.
But the bigger story, says composer Mason Bates, is about Jobs’s search for inner peace – a man who “learns to be human again”. And to convey Jobs’s inner restlessness, Bates uses a finger-picked guitar – a instrument that, incidentally, Jobs also loved.
For those of us schooled in the classical myths of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Handel’s Xerxes and Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, fashioning a grand opera out of such a contemporary subject as Steve Jobs may seem odd. Even tacky.
But this is perhaps opera’s greatest secret weapon. A quick scan of the most successful new operas in the past 50 years show that contemporary subjects often sell and attract new audiences. For opera, that’s gold dust.
Composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and librettist Richard Thomas turned to tabloid star Anna Nicole Smith for their successful opera Anna Nicole, commissioned by London’s The Royal Opera in 2011.
It’s not hard to see the dramatic potential they saw in the former Playboy bunny who married 89-year-old oil billionaire J Howard Marshall in 1994, was widowed a year later, then died aged just 39 in 2007 from a toxic diet of drugs, alcohol and fast-food bingeing.
In 1987, composer John Adams turned to the United States' most infamous contemporary president – then, at least – for the subject of his first opera.
Nixon in China drew on Richard Nixon’s historic trip to Chairman Mao’s China in 1972 and it’s now considered a modern classic, enjoying revivals across the world.
Recently, in 2015, Al Gore's climate change documentary An Inconvenient Truth became the basis of Giorgio Battistelli's opera CO2.
Opera is a world inhabited by big characters. So it makes sense for the likes of Jobs, Nixon and Smith to join them.
Smith may seem to some an odd choice for “high art”. But the Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who performed the role of Smith in Turnage’s opera, compared her to Strauss’s operatic heroine Salome, telling The Guardian: "I find her fascinating and tragic because she really went for death."
Nixon, the disgraced US president famous for the Watergate scandal, provided Adams with the perfect subject to study how “myths came to be”. What could suit grand opera more than that?
Meanwhile Jobs has the potential to provide a character as complex as Mozart’s Don Giovanni or Verdi’s Macbeth. Whether that’s actually realised, we’ll have to wait and see.
While many moan about the use of such contemporary subjects, done well they can teach us the same truths as the classic tales and myths. Maybe even do it better because they are easier for many people to relate to.
And it’s easy to forget that it was only 60 or 100 years ago that Benjamin Britten, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Strauss were premiering their own operas based on contemporary subjects.
Alban Berg's Wozzeck (1925), for example, reflected the sleazy world of Vienna’s fin de siècle right back to the Austrian public, complete with queasy cabaret bar music and industrial factory jobs.
Choosing contemporary subjects doesn’t always work - we’ll skip over flops such as Houston opera’s 1997 turkey Jackie O by composer Michael Daugherty and librettist Wayne Koestenbaum, or English National Opera’s 2006 disaster Gaddafi written by drum and bass group Asian Dub Collective).
But if cinema, theatre and the arts can tackle contemporary subjects to stay relevant, then it only makes sense opera does so too.
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs is performed by Sante Fe Opera, Santa Fe, New Mexico, from Saturday until August 25. Tickets available from www.santafeopera.org