Edward Parks III will likely be the first singer on an opera stage to perform in running shoes, jeans and a black mock turtleneck shirt.
Yet Parks knows there is nothing casual about playing Steve Jobs. He is soaking up all he can about the late Apple co-founder as he prepares to bring his much-heralded baritone voice to the role this summer in the world premiere of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at the Santa Fe Opera.
“I’m taking in everything that is out there and stuffing it in my head so that I can come away with my own thoughts of who he was and what he means to us,” Parks, 33, told Cult of Mac. “I think at first it was a little daunting. This is going to have a lot of attention, not just from the opera world but in the tech community.”
Apple fans may be puzzled by the idea of an operatic treatment of Jobs’ life story. But if they think television and movies, like the Aaron Sorkin-penned film most recently, unjustly demonize Jobs for his demanding and mercurial personality, they should be encouraged by Parks’ quest for a well-rounded portrayal.
“This is a really good opera and really good music and there are a score and scenes that humanize Steve in a way that excites me and interests me,” Parks said.
The opera’s librettist, Mark Campbell, crafted a complex story. It captures Jobs’ magnetism, the ambitious vision and the streaks of cruelty he exhibited while leading his colleagues. But the opera also shows Jobs as restless, meditative and in search of inner peace, which he finds near the end of his life.
The contradictions play out in his relationships, with his father, business partner Steve Wozniak, his Buddhist mentor and his wife Laurene Jobs, who helps her husband change and find power in engaging people on an emotional level.
It is the evolution in (R)evolution where Campbell finds not only a complete story but the kind best told on an opera stage.
Hitting the right notes in Steve Jobs opera
Baritones typically project an authoritative presence on an opera stage, often playing the role of the villain because of the lower notes in their voices.
The reviews on Parks, though, consistently praise him for a style of baritone that is more supple and allows him to easily shift from robust and imposing to nuanced and sensitive.
“I think what drew (the composer) to me doing this project is I do have a lot of colors in my voice that enable me to do the tender moments,” Parks said. “There are tender moments in this opera where you get to see a softer side, a more emotional side of Steve. I’m sure people saw him as a villain and there are some parts where he is that tyrant in the workplace. But this tries to paint the whole of him.”
Parks is used to playing some of the classic characters in opera. When he spoke to Cult of Mac, he was taking a break from a tech rehearsal at the Nashville Opera, where he will play the bullfighter, Escamillio, in Carmen. From there, he heads to Minneapolis for the role of Marcello, a starving artist, in La Bohème.
Like Jobs, Parks’ gifts include reaching an audience from a spotlighted stage. But he is first to play this particular role, which means there are no other singers to reference. He gets the rare opportunity — at least for opera — to study recent history to inform his role, diving into books, documentaries and recorded speeches, interviews and historic product launches on YouTube.
While carefully studying Jobs’ physicality and expression, he is careful not to copy. It doesn’t hurt that Parks’ hair and beard make him resemble Jobs, but Parks said this is a natural look for him that evolved before the role.
Edward Parks III finds his voice
Parks grew up in Indiana, Pennsylvania, known more for coal mining or its Amish residents than opera singing. His father was a coal miner and while there were no professional performers in the family, Parks said they always sang in the house together. As a boy, he grew obsessed with singing and making his voice make certain sounds.
He heard a recording of Luciano Pavarotti when he was young. Though the language sounded foreign, Parks was moved. He understood he was listening to something beautiful.
Parks began voice training when he was 8, and won several vocal competitions. He won admission to the prestigious Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio, where he received a bachelor’s degree in music. Later he earned a master’s degree from Yale University.
After Yale, he got chosen to participate in the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. From there, his voice took him on some of the biggest opera stages in the world.
Why a Steve Jobs opera?
Parks knows (R)evolution will attract new audiences, especially tech fans who greatly admire Jobs.
Still, some might wonder, Why opera? To that, Parks confidently replies, “Come and see why.”
The music, by composer Mason Bates, will bring electronic music and guitar to the orchestra to represent the energy of emerging technology. The opera’s set design nods to the simplicity of the Apple user experience.
“Everybody knows about the greatest hits of Steve Jobs,” Parks said. “In terms of being contemporary opera, it is accessible and you will come away from this humming a tune.”
See The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs premieres at the Santa Fe Opera in New Mexico.
Dates: July 22 and 26; Aug. 4, 10, 15 and 25.
Tickets: Prices vary depending on row and date. For most performances, tickets range from $43 to $236.
Info: Call the Santa Fe Opera box office at 800-280-4654 or visit the opera company’s website for more information.