SF’s Steve Jobs show explores the dark side of a tech legend

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John Moore, as Steve Jobs, holds up an iPhone in “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell.

John Moore, as Steve Jobs, holds up an iPhone in “The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” by Mason Bates and Mark Campbell.

Courtesy of Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s newest show is about the impact and humanity of the iconic Steve Jobs, but his cruelty takes center stage. 

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs,” running at the 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House through Oct. 7, is a nonchronological romp through the Apple founder’s life, set to a unique score that merges orchestral and electronic music. As portrayed, Jobs changes the world amid a whirling personal storm. He’s a businessman, but his tempestuous story is surprisingly opera-ready.

The show’s most poignant scene pits Jobs’ brilliance as an artist, engineer and salesman against his greatest personal mistake. As Jobs, voiced by John Moore, works on a new computer interface in his Los Altos garage, former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Olivia Smith) arrives to tell him that she’s pregnant with his child. He says he has “too much going on.”

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“Get rid of it,” he thunders, looking away from his devastated ex. “I’ll say it’s not mine.”

“The (R)evolution” doesn’t purport to depict events as they actually occurred, but Jobs’ real-life rejection of Brennan and his daughter Lisa is well-documented and carried on for years. Jobs denied his paternity despite a DNA match and then contributed just above the court-mandated sum for child support, even as his fortune grew; Brennan and Lisa, she wrote later, lived on welfare in the girl’s early childhood. The story, in the opera, builds into a core emotional theme. It feels ripe for resolution, but the production is eventually let down by the haphazard reckoning of its final scenes. 

Moore holds Olivia Smith, who plays Chrisann Brennan, during a scene in which the pair's LSD hits begin to kick in as they talk.

Moore holds Olivia Smith, who plays Chrisann Brennan, during a scene in which the pair’s LSD hits begin to kick in as they talk.

Courtesy of Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The opera uses moving white monoliths and high-quality projectors to form its various set pieces, leaning into its inspiration’s minimalist aesthetic. Along with Jobs’ Los Altos garage, “The (R)evolution” sets scenes at Yosemite National Park, Apple’s Cupertino offices, the Stanford University campus and a Los Altos apple orchard. The musical score is bright and dynamic, giving characters distinct sonic signatures that collide and fuse during moments of tension — Jobs is accompanied by electronica and a quick-twanging guitar, while Brennan and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak are associated with flutes and saxophones, respectively. 

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The plot jumps around in time and rarely lingers for more than a few minutes on a scene: We see Jobs announce the iPhone in a San Francisco convention center, attend calligraphy class at Reed College and receive a workbench from his father as a 10th birthday gift. In a well-scored scene set shortly after Jobs dropped out of college, he and Brennan discuss love and music as their LSD begins to kick in.

The opera uses early-career scenes with Brennan, Wozniak — played by Bille Bruley — and other firm employees to cast Jobs as a cruel and obsessive man. He screams at subordinates (their work is “all wrong,” a proposed color palette looks like “vulture vomit”) and refuses to provide an ex-employee’s pension. Librettist Mark Campbell’s sparse lyrics are at their best here: Jobs names one of Apple’s first computers “Lisa” and then tells Brennan, “I’ll take care of my Lisa, Chrisann, and you take care of yours.”

In the opera, Wozniak calls Jobs “one of the bastards we hated” and a “mega-corporate prick” on his way out of the company — accusations that, despite a Laurene Powell Jobs-led attempt to redeem him, never quite fall away (Sasha Cooke, despite bland lyrics, turns in an excellent performance as Jobs’ wife). The final six of the 18 scenes center around the couple’s love affair and Powell Jobs’ battle to make him open up about his illness. Jobs’ Buddhist adviser, Kōbun Chino Otogawa, voiced beautifully by Wei Wu, supplies moral lessons for the executive and much-needed quips for the audience.

In front of a sunset backdrop representing Yosemite National Park, Moore stands opposite Sasha Cooke, who plays Laurene Powell Jobs, with Wei Wu in the middle. Wu plays Jobs’ Buddhist adviser, Kōbun Chino Otogawa.

In front of a sunset backdrop representing Yosemite National Park, Moore stands opposite Sasha Cooke, who plays Laurene Powell Jobs, with Wei Wu in the middle. Wu plays Jobs’ Buddhist adviser, Kōbun Chino Otogawa.

Courtesy of Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

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“The (R)evolution” ends at Jobs’ funeral, with Powell Jobs calling her late husband’s life nuanced and contradictory. She describes his later years as “Version 2.0,” a moniker that feels all too sudden and all too clean — her point to Jobs, earlier in the opera, had been that humans are not robotic machines. The 90-minute show could have easily gone on an hour longer and provided his later years — and eventual relationship with his first-born daughter — a much closer look. Instead, the redemptory final scenes fall flat, and Brennan’s absence at the funeral feels like an oversight rather than the real-life drama it actually was.

Emotional arc aside, the opera is entertaining, modern and well-sung, and San Francisco Opera’s performance felt like a deserved homecoming. The show was originally scheduled for the city in June 2020 and has been played in several other cities already.

Outside the theater, I saw an Apple shuttle bus for employees roll by; inside, hundreds of audience members no doubt checked their iPhones after the actors took their final bows. Though Jobs died 12 years ago as of Thursday, his influence has hardly waned, and his company remains utterly dominant. “The (R)evolution” is a window into the tech world’s tendency to launch inventors and businesspeople into uncanny stardom, to make modern myths out of Silicon Valley’s unheroic heroes.

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