Opera Review: Tod Machover’s VALIS — Futuristic Sturm und Drang

By Aaron Keebaugh

Let’s hope composer Tod Machover, Opera of The Future, and the Media Lab have more up their space-age sleeves.

A scene from MIT’s Opera of the Future and Media Lab staging of VALIS. Photo: Maria Baranova

Huddled beneath the couch cushions and coffee table, Horselover Fat trembles in fear over what he had just experienced. Moments earlier, waves of pain shot through his body, engulfing him in a pink light that revealed all that can be known about the nature of the universe. But was the experience real or imagined? Maybe it was result of stress over a friend’s suicide? Or a bad drug flashback?

These epistemological questions are the dramatic drivers behind VALIS, Tod Machover’s 1987 operatic tour-de-force, which explores notions of knowledge as madness or as illumination, the result of gradual self-awareness. Via a new production by MIT’s Opera of the Future and Media Lab at MIT Building W97 this past weekend, the work came across as both searching and valedictory, unearthly yet eerily grounded in common, everyday experience. For Horselover Fat, the alter ego of science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, the power to overcome delusion may lie in learning to accept it.

Dick’s original novel was as much autobiography as it was fantasy. Relayed through a streamlined libretto, the opera gives us the protagonist wrestling with the truths of his unearthly encounter, filtered through a vision that falls somewhere between Gnosticism and Romanticism. Horselover Fat, the name for the part of the story’s anti-hero who experienced the pink light, is transformed into a Parsifalian wanderer, both innocent fool and afflicted wise man. As he comes closer to the “truth,” he sinks deeper into despair over the vast emptiness of existence. Even tender memories of his dead friend, Gloria, do not ease his pain. And a cynical psychologist, Dr. Stone, tries to convince Fat to embrace his visions as real —  there’s no need to see them as true.

Yet it turns out that, by diving deep into his delusion, with all of its magical thinking, Fat finds a way out of his perceptual maze. He meets an ’80s-style rock duo, Eric and Linda Lampton, who preach to him about VALIS, a kind of extraterrestrial intelligence system. Things grow even more bizarre (in the world of Philip K Dick, that is always possible) when he meets Mini, who “performs” on a cosmological jar-like instrument and Sophia, an alien artificial intelligence. Ironically, it turns out that the extraterrestrial possesses the warmth of a true companion and can soothe Fat’s agony. He has always been whole, Sophia tells him, making him realize that a saving love has always been inside of him. After that revelation, Fat, his quasi-religious pilgrimage completed, finally rediscovers the self that he has repressed.

Machover saturates this age-old trope in sounds that are equal parts otherworldly and familiar. The composer wrote this opera during a period in which he split his time between working at Pierre Boulez’s IRCAM and MIT’s Media Lab, where he still serves as professor and music director. VALIS is filled with sounds that buzz, drone, and echo as if they are wafting through a large chasm. Yet, in contrast, the vocal writing is attractively melodic, reflecting both traditional opera and contemporary synth-pop influences.

The chief ingredients in this imaginative soundscape are instruments that Machover’s graduate students developed specifically for this production. Nina Masuelli played “The Jar,” a glass AI instrument that invents wild sonorities on the fly from anything that it senses. Max Addae added his own psychedelic twist with what he calls “VocalCords,” a box of loose strings hooked up to a computer that allows him to bend sound itself. Both instruments were charismatic ingredients in the staging: they generated as much allure as they did mystery. Dramatically, they effectively underscored the scenes where Fat struggles to escape the prison of his consciousness.

Jay Scheib’s inventive production contributed mightily to the sci-fi atmosphere as well, seesawing between incorporating elements of live theater and reality television. Serving as cinematographer, Scheib gave us footage of Fat and other characters in close-ups. Scenes featuring live video — projected onto small TVs and a large overhead screen — delivered an intimate view of mental confusion and collapse. Traumatic images of Gloria ingesting handfuls of pills were as heartbreaking as they were disturbing. On top of it all, visual strobe effects and walls of silver shocked the senses  — like taking an ice bath after an acid trip.

A scene from MIT’s Opera of the Future and Media Lab staging of VALIS. Photo: Maria Baranova

The fine cast of singers powerfully conveyed the narrative’s deep emotional tensions. Davóne Tines made Horselover Fat into a sympathetic presence, his firm tenor capable of steering a nimble course between madness and solace. Kristin Young’s resplendent singing as Sophia provided a perfect counterweight to David Cushing’s basso-profundo gravitas as Dr. Stone.

Timur Bekbosunov and Maggie Finnegan made for a wildly humorous pairing as the Lamptons, each performer reveling in the vocal flourishes of  characters whose imaginations often ran into rowdy outer reaches. Gloria was played by two singers who neatly balanced the other: Rose Hegele sang with soaring beauty while Anaïs Reno latched onto the opportunities to make the most of her role’s soulful, down-home qualities.

Keyboardists Julia Carey and Emil Droga joined percussionist Maria Finkelmeier to create a wonderfully weird play of rhythm and electo-acoustic textures. Machover conducted every shift in the soundscape’s accent and meter with an energy that enlivened the ensemble’s efforts –though he was hobbled by a few technical glitches.

All of this hallucinogenic sturm und drang made VALIS into one of the early highlights of the Boston season. Let’s hope Machover, Opera of The Future, and the Media Lab have more up their futuristic sleeves.

Aaron Keebaugh has been a classical music critic in Boston since 2012. His work has been featured in the Musical Times, Corymbus, Boston Classical Review, Early Music America, and BBC Radio 3. A musicologist, he teaches at North Shore Community College in both Danvers and Lynn.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts