Shapeshifting snakes, talking trees, a swimming pool, a tragic Botox accident…it’s all in renowned novelist and short fiction writer A.M. Homes’ new opera, “Chunky in Heat.”
The opera, premiering on May 31st during New York Opera Fest, is based on four short stories by Homes and will be staged at The Flea Theater by Experiments in Opera. The opera explores the coming of age of a girl named Cheryl, aka Chunky, in and around her family’s swimming pool in the canyons of Los Angeles.
Homes is known for tackling controversial subjects in her novels and for her quirky short stories. “Chunky in Heat” has both elements as the libretto looks unabashedly at female sexuality, body issues, the American Dream, and our relationship with technology and memories. Injected into the storyline is a great deal of humor, reflecting how our laughter can quickly change into tears and vice versa. Unique to the work was Experiments in Opera’s decision to engage six composers to write the music for “Chunky.”
There’s little doubt, “Chunky in Heat” will have people talking, and that’s good. Homes partnered with Experiments in Opera to create a work for new and different audiences—audiences that may never have considered attending an opera. In a recent interview with OperaWire, Homes discussed her experience as a first-time librettist, the themes that run through “Chunky,” and her partnership with Experiments in Opera.
OperaWire: What’s been your experience with opera? When were you first exposed to the art form?
A.M. Homes: My first exposure to the art form was when I was growing up as a child in Washington, DC. On the weekends, my grandmother and mother would get their hair done, and we’d listen to the Texaco Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. The broadcasts became so much a part of my being that if I was ever in a coma, or if I ever needed to be comforted in some real way, I’d want to just listen to the broadcasts and the opera quizzes with those incredibly beautiful, resonant voices of the people who narrated the breaks.
I also have some funny, bizarre memories of my grandmother having eight-track cassettes—those big tapes—and one of them was “Madame Butterfly.” Opera’s not something I studied; it’s something I enjoy. So, in terms of the real formal structural elements, when compared to people who know things about opera, I really know nothing.
OW: What motivated you to write a libretto?
AMH: I started off as a playwright. With actors on a stage, you can tell stories differently because someone is physically inhabiting the story; opera expands on that possibility. There’s so much you can do in terms of conveying emotion and intention because the many elements give you more dimensions to work with.
OW: Tell me a bit about your creative process as a fiction writer. Do you start with characters or with the plot? Was the process different when you wrote the libretto?
AMH: My process begins with what I would describe as almost a non-fiction idea—philosophical types of ideas. Then I think about someone who can help me tell the story, and that’s where the characters come in. I’ve often used what I’ll describe as the least likely character to tell a story, somebody who has a different relationship to the questions. It’s a person, who when I use them as the main character, help me crack the idea open or see it from a different point of view.
Sometimes it’s a young character, and in “Chunky” they are several young characters. For me, it goes back to something a very wonderful writer and teacher, Grace Paley, used to say: “Write the truth according to the character,” meaning writing whatever is organic or accurate for the person telling the story. That goes for everything from their history, their socioeconomic background, what those things mean to them, and what they are in need of as characters.
I never really thought about it or realized that it took me 30 years to write seven years of this family’s history. I really wanted to see what their evolution was and who they became. It reminded me a little bit like J.D. Salinger and the Glass family.
At one point, I had a version of the libretto that was, I would say, much more literal and probably, I don’t know if heavy-handed is the right word, but I think it didn’t leave enough room for the other elements. I started cutting back and thinking: How do I make this more concise, and how do I leave room for the music and the singers to be able to really do something rather than feel like they’re having to rush or compress their words to fit the world?
OW: What were the questions that Cheryl/Chunky needed to answer?
AMH: The big question for Cheryl/Chunky was: What is freedom, and how does one achieve freedom when what they’re trying to leave behind is something that is very much unresolved? How do you grow up living with the grief of having a dead child in the family? Obviously, it’s very much emotionally pushed out to extremes but “Chunky in Heat” is a piece about growing up and moving on. Opera loves tragedy.
OW: Penning a libretto is probably not front of mind for most writers. For those who wish to go down the libretto path, what’s some advice you would give to a writer who thinks: Okay, this is a really cool thing that I’d like to try.
AMH: I think part of it is reading a lot; it’s going back and reading collections of poetry. I found books of poems enormously helpful because I looked at how they were structured. Poetry is so concise and so much about the relationship between words both in terms of meaning and in terms of sound. In that way, librettos are much more like poems than short stories. And, of course, reading some librettos is important to see the ways in which stories are told.
Historically, there’s a lot of librettos that aren’t very good. That was a relief! When I’d go to the opera, and I’m looking up at the supertitles, I’m thinking: Oh, that’s poorly written! So it was a relief in the sense that I could experiment, especially with this particular company (Experiments in Opera). I thought all right, since they’re experimenting, I’m going to experiment too.
OW: “Chunky in Heat” is based on four of your short stories. How did you go about selecting the four stories?
AMH: I wrote the short story “Chunky in Heat” 30 years ago. Somehow that character (Cheryl/Chunky) and that story has stayed not just with me, but with a lot of people. I think she’s emblematic of a lot that didn’t get talked about back then in terms of young girls coming of age, their sexuality and their relationships with body image. Today it’s more common to discuss these things.
There’s this shapeshifting character in the opera, that was originally in a story I wrote called “Raft in Water, Floating” which is set in California. I wrote the story for an art exhibition featuring young women photographers—it was the opening of Jeannie Greenberg’s gallery in New York—and the show was called “Another Girl, Another Planet.” This little shapeshifter character came up. I was always interested in the idea of shapeshifting and reinvention and what does that mean in contemporary society. So, there are all these threads from the stories that go through the opera.
OW: Many of your stories are set in California and Los Angeles in particular. Can you talk more about that?
AMH: I feel like the city of Los Angeles is one that’s about the American dream; it’s about reinvention. People come literally from all over the world to make a new life. The way in which we think about California is that it’s this kind of idealistic place—it has perfect weather—but, it also has all these Biblical problems like mudslides, and fires. It’s a place of contradiction: perfection versus imminent disaster. California, for me, is a metaphorical state.
OW: You focus on two big themes in “Chunky.” One is body image and the other, death.
AMH: I usually don’t write autobiographically, but I’m adopted, and I grew up in a family where six months before I was born a nine-year-old child had died. And so that element of living in a house and being a child in a home where grief permeates has always been very interesting to me. I knew another family when I was growing up where the father was ill and getting kidney dialysis at home. I would go and spend time with them. It was a process for me trying to understand not just grief but illness and death. I’m a kind of philosophical person by nature, and that pushed me in a certain direction. Every day we’re seeing on TV families whose children are killed in school shootings. How do people move on or carry on after such tragedy? Death is universal, and I think we tend to deal with it very poorly as a society. I just wrote a piece for “Vanity Fair” about the artist, Barbara Hammer, who died recently. About six months ago, she gave an incredible talk at the Whitney on making art while dying. She spoke about how we don’t talk about such things, how we don’t deal with them. Operatically, death is one of the main themes—at the very least, one person dies. I think that there’s a romance about that.
Within this opera, there is also the romance of starvation, of trying to reduce oneself to the smallest possible element. Abigail, Cheryl/Chunky’s sister, doesn’t eat. I had someone come up to me and ask if Chunky was truly fat. I thought it was a fascinating question because she could be fat, or not at all, and just thinks she is. It doesn’t matter if she’s fat or not, that’s not the issue; the issues are the conceptual ideas of success and wealth and realizing that none of it—no pun intended—carries any weight if you’re overcome by grief. It’s also the tragedy of contemporary America and the need to be consumers, successful, and to make everything seem perfect. That, to me, is tragic.
With all that said, the other thing that’s really important to me and happens in traditional opera, and certainly for me in storytelling, is humor. I think if you can make people laugh, or play something in a way that’s funny, it allows you to cut a little deeper emotionally. There’s a wonderful scene in which the family is having dinner, and Abigail (Cheryl/Chunky’s sister) says that she’s limited to ten calories. Is that ten calories per item or in total?
It’s the absurdity of everyday life; our lives are absurd. We all have moments of joy or laughter. Then something serious happens and we need to deal with it. How do you push the boundaries of where things go emotionally? Opera specializes in creating a heightened experience; it’s never just about an ordinary day. It’s always about peak moments.
OW: The music for “Chunky in Heat” was written by six composers. How did that come about?
AMH: A couple of years ago Experiment in Opera’s Jason Cady and Aaron Siegel asked if they could adapt one of my short stories for sort of a flash opera, a very short opera, and I said, absolutely. And then, at some point, they asked me if would ever want to write an opera? And I’m like yes, and Jason and Aaron said they had an idea to do something with six composers, and I was like six composers?
I think at one point, they thought they were going to give sections of the story or sections of the opera to different people. Then they realized that would be very choppy and so they went back and decided to give characters or through-lines to people. It’s all been really interesting, honestly. I admire Jason and Aaron enormously because part of their mission is to make operas quickly, to have a development process that isn’t many, many years long. All the folks who I’ve been involved with through them are so smart and so sensitive and know tons about what they’re doing. They’re experimenting, and they’re willing to try things and see what happens. Opera has such a long tradition, and sometimes that can cripple it. So, thinking about what new opera or contemporary opera is, is really interesting to me. I grew up going to concerts and operas with my family, and I still wonder how it is that I’m the youngest person there.
The stuff that Aaron and Jason are up to really is not just about bringing in new audiences but entirely different kinds of audiences. All the things that people believe they know about opera or classical music, doesn’t necessarily have to be that way.
OW: How long did it take you to complete the opera?
AMH: I can’t remember when they wanted it, but they had it by the middle of July. The turnaround was less than a year, which from what I hear, just doesn’t happen. When I do it again. I would like to spend more time with the composers and come to understand their work and their process. I just I’m just amazed by the whole thing, honestly.
OW: Do you have any final thoughts?
AMH: The thing that is so easy to forget is the number of elements at play. For someone who is creative, it’s an amazing toolbox to have a stage and singers and musicians and lights. For novelists and short story writers, it all has to fit on a piece of paper and it’s flat in a way. I really do want to do it again. It’s like a ride at an amusement park. I want to do it again!