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VALIS at MIT: Potent Ambiguity


2023 Sophia Kristin Young meets 1987 counterpart Anne Azéma
(Joel Cohen photo)

Jay Sheib’s new production of Tod Machover’s 1987 VALIS (performed at the MIT Theater Arts Performance Space on Sept. 8th, 9th, and 10th) was dense and difficult to fathom, but perhaps that’s part of the point. It is based on a book that renowned science fiction author Philip K. Dick, wrote eight years before the end of his life. According to the handout essay, VALIS is a fictionalized version of a strange event the author experienced: “a powerful beam of ‘pink light’ invaded his mind, body and surroundings for an entire day, revealing vast new knowledge about the meaning of the universe… and leaving him wondering whether he’d had a nervous breakdown, a drug relapse, a spiritual enlightenment, or… had been the object of a tech experiment…” The plot centers on a character who is alternately Dick’s alter ego, Horselover Fat (from the Greek meaning of “Philip” and the German meaning of “Dick”), and the author himself. Machover, the head of MIT’s “Opera of the Future” program, co-wrote the libretto and composed the score, and has updated it for the 21st century. Read BMInt’s interview with Machover HERE.

The story is hard to follow because of the metaphysical musings of the source, the necessary condensation required when adapting a full-length novel, and staging decisions specific to the current production, such as the end of the first half of the opera, when Horselover Fat / Philip is trying to save his friend Gloria from suicide. At that point, according to the 1987 libretto, “Gloria moves to the top of the stairs… Gloria screams, jumping off the building… All lights and sound are cut and Gloria vanishes.” In this performance, Gloria (soprano Rose Hegele) became increasingly agitated, but her suicide attempt was not clearly portrayed, and the very brief blackout seemed like a mistake.

The staging also obscured the central concept of VALIS, the “Vast Active Living Intelligent System.” A rock duo, the Lamptons, introduces Fat / Philip to VALIS. Instead of the original’s satellites and circuitry, we mostly saw head shots of the duo, their faces merging/overlapping and splitting again, suggesting gender and identity ambiguity, but not necessarily the existence of a huge AI system. Another character, Mini, described in the libretto as “a computer music composer who writes all the Lamptons’ material for them” and whose “‘Synchronicity Music’ transmits subliminal messages, mostly about VALIS,” had been described as “crippled and wild looking.” Nina Masuelli as Mini, on the other hand, appeared buttoned-up and self-contained; her appearance and body language failed to convey her great power.

Apart from these confusing aspects, the production delivered much strong artistry. During a very striking, attention-grabbing “soft open,” Maria Finkelmeier (percussion) played an amorphous, improvisatory-seeming melody on various keyboard percussion instruments over a synthesizer drone, while Kristin Young (as the narrator) paraded along a lighted pathway in a hot pink bodysuit, Rose Hegele (as one of two Glorias, with Anaïs Reno) mimed shaking and vomiting into a toilet; Davóne Tines (as Fat / Philip) paced and fidgeted. Young’s ad lib. spoken narrative transitioned effectively to Tines’s rhythmic speech and his subsequent singing in “Fat’s Sacrament.” The wordless melody in “Gloria’s Transition / Beach Scene” was understated and haunting.

The increased rhythmic speed, dissonance, and volume of “Fat’s Dream” created agitation and internal discord in marked contrast to the “Beach Scene” aria. A “stretch-sensor based voice controller/processor” developed and played by Max Addae, which created repetitions and reverberations of Philip’s lines, hyperexpanded the disquiet. David Cushing delivered a memorable Dr. Stone, Fat’s psychiatrist; the piano and synthesizer mirrored his vocal melody while showing off his impressive low range.

As the Lamptons, Maggie Finnegan and Timur Bekbosunov made a convincing rock duo who exuded sexual power. The driving rock beat and insistent drum rhythm charged the scene. Masuelli used the “jar,” a controller she invented, to perform in real time with MIT PhD student Manaswi Mishra’s AI music generator, which responded both to motion and selective touch. Despite the lack of clarity on Mini’s characterization, Masuelli fascinatingly put across what Machover describes as a new type of “hyperinstrument.”

Kristin Young (in pink) as Sophia, Timur Bekbosinov as Michael Lampton, Davóne Tines at Horselover Fat and Maggie Finnegan as Linda Lampton (Maria Baranova photo)

Young (playing Sophia, an embodiment of godly wisdom) demonstrated masterful vocal control, holding notes for several seconds at a time. The marked decrescendo at the end of her aria added a ring of truth to her reassurance that “You will not forget me… You will see me again.” But a quartet/passacaglia sung by Sophia, Philip, and the Lamptons, in which the score became louder, faster, lower-pitched, and more agitated, eventually accompanied by drum and cymbal rolls, brought her quiet reassurance into question.

Maria Finkelmeier on keyboard percussion, cymbals, and drums; Julia Carey on piano and synthesizer, Emil Droga on synthesizer and several prerecorded tracks shared the scene with the electronics. Given the profusion of sound sources, Machover generally writes in a relatively spare style, usually consisting of two or three instrumental lines in counterpoint. One line usually features long, sustained notes while the other voices move more freely. Machover makes use of the synthesizers to achieve a number of colors, including complex timbres where the fundamental pitch is blurred with many overtones and contrasts with the more distinctly pitched and familiar piano and mallet instruments. He occasionally uses the electronics to refer to other concrete sounds: a record scratch effect during the Part 1 Finale added a touch of humor to the otherwise dark scene.

The players showed tight coordination, thanks to Machover’s skilled conducting.  The amplified synthesizers and the miked singers could be overwhelming at times. Tines’s microphone also briefly stopped working a few times on Saturday night, though he continued to be audible.

The set included three video screens―a large freestanding one at the front of the stage and two disguised as TV sets in Philip’s living room. They variously showed prerecorded video and live shots taken by director Jay Scheib and vocalist Rose Hegele, who move around the set with large video cameras. Although their presence on the set could be distracting at times, the resulting videos interestingly blurred fantasy and reality.

Anaïs Reno’s gave a simple and moving reprise of Gloria’s melody at the end. Philip’s Final Narrative (“I sat before the TV set… I kept my commission”) felt bleak and left us wondering not only if the experience were real, but whether in fact it had any value for the character. Tines’s wonderful singing and acting truly brought Horselover Fat / Philip Dick vividly to life and made the ambiguity of the ending particularly potent.

Ruth Hertzman-Miller is a collaborative pianist, composer, and physician who enjoys composing in a mix of styles, both traditional and modern. She is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Composition at Boston Conservatory at Berklee.

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