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Valis points to exciting possibilities for growth of opera

VALIS

An opera by Tod Macover.

Based on the novel by Philip K. Dick.

Starring Patrick Mason, Janice Felty,

Terry Edwards, Mary King,

Daryl Runswick and Anne Az'ema.

Conducted by Tod Machover.

The Cube, June 16 & 17.

By JONATHAN RICHMOND

TOD MACHOVER'S Valis is simply terrific. It's a great deal of fun; it's full of imagination; and, in human terms, it has substance too. Perhaps most importantly, Valis represents a turning from the self-indulgent tendencies seen in some computer music circles recently to create music of real merit and to employ it to dramatic effect.

Valis stems from the science fiction book of that name by Philip K. Dick. In a program note Machover says he was attracted to the work "since it seemed to uncannily address so many of my own concerns, from the obsessive search for unifying principles of human experience, to the complex interrelationship between individual mental imagination and external objective truth."

Valis takes us on an odyssey through the mind of Horselover Fat and his alter ego, Phil. It begins with a naked Fat (played by Patrick Mason) pierced by a strange pink light, which becomes an obsession of his. So, too, does a dream of an idyllic spot in Northern California, complete with a lovely and tender wife he has never seen.

Part I of the opera is dominated by themes of mental disorder, fragmentation and human pain, and these were powerfully conveyed.

"What he didn't know," says the narrator of Fat with a nice touch of the macabre, "was that it's sometimes an appropriate response to reality to go insane." Mason was absolutely convincing in his portrayal of madness; his singing was solid, too. His words were phrased compellingly to bring out their meaning; the ever psychological music consummated their drama, it's percussive nature driving through the irony.

Reflections on loneliness were poignant: the psyche-within was laid bare and terror perhaps most effectively consummated during the moments of greatest stillness.

Janice Felty's suicidal Gloria came across well too. The deadpan scene between Fat and Gloria -- as Gloria hunts down pills with which to finish herself off -- was really rather a blast. As we hear, Phil asks Gloria not to kill herself as a favor to him, "a lousy idea" which only makes her feel guilty.

Terry Edwards' dark voice, deliberate movements and a larger-than-life stage presence made him thoroughly sinister as Dr. Stone, the psychiatrist.

Valis uses space effectively -- vertically as well as horizontally -- with characters appearing at different levels. A space opens up on the ground floor level to reveal a mental hospital wing; a story up the Lamptons -- a rock group come to proclaim the message of Valis ("Vast Active Living Intelligent System") -- launch Part II of the opera with their show (accompanied by a video which wasn't quite good enough; one of the production's few disappointments.) Mary King and Daryl Runswick as the Lamptons put on a good act, their brand of rock fitting naturally into the score as a whole.

Anne Az'ema has an angelic voice, so it was quite appropriate that she be chosen to portray the (initially-at-any-rate) soothing Sophia, sent to reassure Phil. She did the job nicely.

The closing passages of Part II contain some of the opera's strongest music (there's a a passacaglia of monumental proportions), and also some of the most psychologically revealing moments. Phil walks into the pool chanting "I'm not afraid." The suffocatingly climactic music and staging quickly lead us to believe otherwise.

There are only two instrumental voices simultaneously at play in Valis -- keyboard and percussion -- but they sound like many. These Hyperinstruments -- which provide for the computer analysis and processing of musical sounds according to programmed instructions -- are used with great creativity. Most importantly, pitches and timbres are developed and directed to heighten and cement the drama. Machover's computer systems are used to create real music and act not as mere electronic gizmos, but as a means of bringing out the humanity of his score.

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Although the audience adored Valis, one critic complained that the opera was clich'e-ridden. But new ways are used to cast fresh light on ancient human themes, and a deliciously black humor adds substance and entertainment to what might otherwise be statements of the obvious.

I liked Valis for its vitality, its originality, its humor and its humanity. It points to exciting new possibilities for the growth of opera into the 21st century.