In the Calgary Opera presentation of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, Brett Polegato will perform the titular role in glasses, jeans, runners and a black turtleneck sweater – the recognizable uniform of the Apple co-founder. The busy Canadian baritone suggests we should not read too much into the look-alike appearance.
“This is not a biopic, and I don’t do mimicry,” he says from Calgary after a day’s rehearsal. “The glasses and the rest are just a point of entry for the audience to recognize who it is on stage. For me, I’m more interested in the essence of who the character is.”
People have tried to get to the bottom of who Jobs is for some time. Many books and more than one feature film have been devoted to the computer and iPhone entrepreneur, noted egomaniac, inspiring visionary and generally unlikable human being. The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, a one-act opera with music by Mason Bates and libretto by Mark Campbell, made its world premiere with a sold-out run in 2017 at Santa Fe Opera. The Canadian debut at Calgary’s Southern Alberta Jubilee Auditorium (Feb. 4, 8 and 10) is a co-production with Austin Opera, Atlanta Opera, Utah Opera and Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
While audiences have applauded the opera – “rapturously received,” reported the Washington Post reviewer in 2017 – critics have found the user-friendly story to be undramatic and too soft on Jobs, a big meanie. “Sappy,” with fiction that “rings false,” said The New York Times.
It does not faze Polegato that the crowds are loving what the critics have not: “Isn’t that always the case?”
The 55-year-old baritone has sung any number of well-known fictional characters in his career, including Don Giovanni, Eugene Onegin and William Tell. But his real-life historical figures (including a boxing manager in Terence Blanchard’s Champion and Canadian priest Thomas Nangle in John Estacio’s Ours) are more obscure. Either way, the Niagara Falls, Ont., native does not change the way he prepares for a role.
“I believe that any piece of theatre should stand on its own. All the information that I need should be in the piece.”
Which is to say that Polegato did not watch Ashton Kutcher’s portrayal of the Apple co-founder in the 2013 biographical drama Jobs, nor did he fall down a YouTube rabbit hole in search of the man’s mannerisms. He did, however, take note that Jobs was a pacer. Like a shark, he could not stand still. Polegato is not particularly interested in the pacing as a physical trait he feels compelled to reproduce. Rather, it is the meaning behind the habit that is important: “What does that pacing epitomize as a human?”
Well, it could mean that Jobs suffered from a psychological condition in which an individual craves almost ceaseless action, which enables them to avoid reflecting on the awful things they do. Or it could suggest he was simply an antsy fellow.
Whatever it means, Polegato says, “You have to find a way to portray any characteristic without being dishonest to the character, while arriving on something that works theatrically.”
Though the opera is not particularly long at 90 minutes, Polegato will not be iPhoning in his performance. There are 17 scenes plus interludes, and he’ll be on the stage the whole time. “You really feel you’re going through a workout.”
The Santa Fe Opera Orchestra recording of the opera won a Grammy Award in 2019. Songs such as Karma Can Suck, They’re Waiting for You in the Boardroom and You’ve Become One of the People We Hated represent the fall in the rise and fall of the tech-sector genius. More than one critic has taken exception to the opera’s tidy, romantic and redemptive arc that presents Jobs’s personality shortcomings as a bug, not a feature.
Which raises the question: Was Jobs a jerk who lost his way, or was being a jerk simply his way?
“He was a Greek tragic hero,” says Polegato. “He just soared too high.”
Notice the singer offers no opinion on Jobs’s jerkiness. His reasoning? “You can’t pass judgment on your character. You just have to understand them, and you just have to be them.”
As for being his character, there may be a limit to how far Polegato goes. He will don the glasses and wear the turtleneck, but …
“To the best of my knowledge, we’re not shaving my head.”