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VALIS, an opera by Tod Machover based on the novel by Philip K. Dick, 1987, 77:22

As with any nifty work of art based on writings by Dick, the first emotion that comes to my mind when listing to VALIS is regret. Dick only lived long to see the faintest glimmers of how his career would take off like the proverbial rocket, and VALIS the opera didn't arrive until 5 years after Dick's death (he died in 1982). Of course all those years in the wilderness of drugs, obscurity, and revelations are now part of the Dickian mythology, and good portions of that confusion and bizarreness found their way into Dick's wonderful novel VALIS. However great VALIS, I would still say that if you need to live through such a mess in order to create works of art, it's not a fate I would wish on anyone.

Tod Machover's opera version is actually quite a good adaptation of Dick's novel, although it is perhaps too short to do it full justice. It's more like half an opera than a whole one, and it's dwarfed by some the classics of traditional opera. In VALIS the opera, many elements arrive without sufficient explanation, and one narrative twist follows another without enough entry points for the audience. In the notes that accompany the CD, Machover talks about excising the character of Kevin for reasons of brevity. For those who haven't read the book, Kevin is a good friend of the main characters; Kevin has a sharp word for every wild theory that the others come up with. I think this is a major mistake, as Kevin's sarcastic commentary on the happenings around him would have made the opera more accessible to the audience, even though he doesn't have much in the way of a narrative function.

Otherwise, all of Dick's vision is here. Horselover Fat, one of the two main characters, is a poor put-upon man, hanging precariously onto his sanity, and fighting to maintain healthy relationships with the people around him. The narrator is Philip K. Dick, who comments occasionally and is revealed to be the same person as Horselover Fat midway through the opera (in a scene that is related in the production notes, more on that later). The opera begins with Horselover's friend Gloria asking for some pills in order to kill herself. As in the book, Horselover's attempts to help her are all in vain, and that failure drives him to a suicide attempt of his own. Horselover begins therapy with Dr. Stone, who gives him the courage to explore the revelations that he has received.

Part Two of the opera deals with the Lamptons, the film about VALIS, and Sophia, and this is where things get even more weird (and where Kevin's commentary would have been appreciated). Horselover meets these strange artists, the Lamptons, who have made a film about a satellite known as VALIS. The Lamptons are also friends with Sophia, who is not the little girl that she seems; is she really the messiah type that Horselover Fat and Phil Dick have been looking for? Sophia has several arias, and then the opera wraps up. Again, the music itself is a little bare of meaning in comparison to the information in the staging notes, which are extensive.

What about Machover's music? VALIS is not as avant garde as I was expecting. There is some electronic music, and there are some taped effects (such as in a cool passage where excerpts of Dick's Exegesis are set in French and then gradually sped up). Certainly nothing too strange overall. The singers are not singing classical opera by any means, but nor are they torturing their voice boxes as sometimes happens in modern opera. I really loved Track 21, Slippers Song, which is a moving aria by Sophia. This is simply beautiful music (and reminiscent of some of the final pieces in Glass's Einstein on the Beach, if that is a helpful reference point).

I would love to see this opera staged. As I've already stated, Machover provides comprehensive production notes, and they add immeasurably. Many of the essential plot points are conveyed only through the visuals; the accompanying bits of programmatic music are hard to decipher without the overt clues of the program itself. This could be considered in one of two ways: either as a failing of Machover's music, which is a possibility, or as a corollary of the strangeness and complexity of the ideas that come from Dick's book and are crammed into 80 minutes. I understand that this opera was created as a stage piece, but the only evidence I have is the music on the CD. I don't know where VALIS would be staged, and neither do I know if it has played anywhere after its initial run.

VALIS is a testament to the life and struggles of Dick, and the book is an incredibly personal thing. Machover has done it justice, with one or two slight hiccups. This is a must-listen for anyone at all curious about Dick's life or his legacy.

First posted: March 24, 2000; Last modified: March 2, 2005

Copyright © 2000-2005 by James Schellenberg (

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