The Atlanta Opera’s General and Artistic Director Tomer Zvulun has been described by colleagues as an impresario who specializes in “guerilla opera.”

Whether through championship of cutting-edge modern compositions or perceptive reconsiderations of familiar pieces from the vast Romantic repertory, 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 Jobs, by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell, opens at Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre 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 co-effort of five companies: Atlanta, Austin Opera (where the production premiered earlier this season) and the opera companies of Kansas City, Utah and Calgary. 

ArtsATL spoke with Zvulun to hear his thoughts on what the opera has to say to today’s audiences.

ArtsATL: So, how did this five-company collaboration on The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs come about?

Tomer Zvulun: We started discussing this in 2019, before the pandemic. Our goal was to premiere it in 2021, so we’ve been working on this for over three years. Originally it was a consortium of three companies. Austin had premiered another production of mine, Silent Night by Kevin Puts, and we began discussing doing a new production of Steve Jobs that could travel easily. Kansas City was looking for something like that too. Then when we started sharing the amazing production designs of Jacob Climer, other companies jumped on the bandwagon, specifically Salt Lake City, then Calgary, who wanted to do the opera’s Canadian premiere. So, it all worked out really well.

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

ArtsATL: Why do you think that this particular opera has engendered such excitement?

Zvulun: I think because it captures the Zeitgeist. 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 am talking to you right now on my iPhone, looking at notes on my iPad, with my AirPods in my ears. His innovations revolutionized multiple industries. Not just iPods or Pixar animation, he revolutionized many, many things in our daily existence. He is a familiar, iconic personality. 

Number two, the music captures the time because this guy who wrote it, Mason Bates, is a young composer who, just like Steve Jobs, is inspired by the intersection between art and technology. In addition to writing complex symphonic music for all the greatest orchestras from Chicago to San Francisco to Boston, he’s also a DJ of electronic dance music. 

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

ArtsATL: What is it about this piece that most inspires you as a stage director?

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

We all have people we love, and we must deal with the fact that someday they won’t be here. That is why the piece is so effective, because it is ultimately about Steve accepting that he is 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 for me, both contemporary works. One is Silent Night, about the Christmas truce in World War I, which could not be more relevant to our times now, 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 the dichotomy of Steve Jobs. (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 is amazing. He truly becomes Steve Jobs. When you watch him in the final scene, when Steve is gone and is watching his own memorial service, you forget that he is a performer. You are looking at Steve Jobs. I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it.

ArtsATL: You mentioned Jacob Climer’s designs. Could you tell us a little of what we will be seeing as well as hearing?

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, yet a power-wielding CEO. You have this idea of minimalism versus excess. That is what this production takes its cue from, the dichotomy between this Zen, meditative world versus this crazy, high-flying logical world. 

The set has 28 large TVs that allow us to project from within and change colors and textures on a large scale. So, there is a highly technological element to the design. But at the core of it is a portrait of these people who are obsessed with identity and mortality. I think that’s the reason for the success of this production; it combines a large-scale mural where you incorporate all these technological wonders — but then you are able to intimately focus on Steve Jobs, the man. It is 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 earth he stepped on. I think that dichotomy is fascinating.

ArtsATL: People are divided about contemporary opera, too. It has been said that you risk alienating half of your audience if you program contemporary works, but you risk alienating the other half if you don’t.

Zvulun: That’s absolutely true, though the kind of corporate attendance we are seeing with Steve Jobs is unparalleled in our history. Artistic directors have to be very thoughtful about programming. You can’t fill a season with contemporary opera; it won’t work. There is a business logic to it. You cannot do a big gamble like Steve Jobs every season on the main stage. I program at least one contemporary opera every 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 is incumbent upon us to do these things, but there is also a smart business way to do that.

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

Zvulun: Because no other art form crystalizes emotion as well as music, and even music is not enough without the human voice. The human voice takes you to places nothing else can; it gives you a dimension that spoken drama, cinema, 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 to be, and death. These are the primary things that drive us in this world, because we are mortal and want to be loved. The other thing that drives us is power. Classic operas are all about that.

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


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

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