Never has an opera dared me to like it as much as Chunky in Heat.
The title sounds almost like a riff on “Chucky gets lucky,” the ad slogan for the comedy/horror film The Bride of Chucky. But no, it’s Chunky — about a supposedly overweight teen-age girl who is figuring out modern life from the vantage point of her backyard swimming pool. Seen May 31-June 2 at the Flea Theater in a production by Experiments in Opera, the score had no fewer than six composers — Jason Cady, Paula Matthusen, Erin Rogers, Aaron Siegel, Shelley Washington and Matthew Welch — which doesn’t promise singleness of purpose or consistency of voice.
The central creative figure here is the librettist: the much-awarded, best-selling author A.M. Homes, who is either unacquainted with ideas about marquee appeal or too uncompromising to care. But can she ever write. In well-controlled torrents of words, her panorama of modern-day Los Angeles is full of intriguingly crazy imagery, such as an anorexic teen who is on parole for vomiting in public and moms who take diet pills during pregnancy.
Unfolding in happy, David Hockney-esque California colors (thanks to designer Kate Noll), the 90-minute opera seems to be yet another look at the pressure women endure to live up to the media images presented to them. A worthy subject, yes — and by the end, Homes has convincingly made it a matter of life and death.
Having once been dubbed “Chunky” by her brother, Cheryl (the main character) is at the sidelines of a family headed by a seldom-seen dad who’s an entertainment lawyer and a mother so obsessed with facial cosmetic matters that her tear ducts no longer work. We’re in a world where people don’t feel much, or, if they do, they’re too imprisoned by surface considerations to express themselves. This is crucial, since the aforementioned brother has died some time before the opera starts. And, as it turns out, the sidelines that Chunky inhabits are the safest place to be in this family. By the end of the opera, she’s the last one standing.
Everybody around Chunky seems pretty ineffectual — most obviously her boyfriend (who seems more like an occasional buddy), but also her sister, who’s described as eating “one calorie at a time” and is existing on dietary supplements. (She’s the one who was arrested for public vomiting.)
Along the periphery is a talking tree, one of those super-helpful automated things like Siri that can drive you crazy. This particular tree seems to have a superhuman overview of the family (it might even read their minds) and gives something like voice-over psychological narration. It’s here that Chunky in Heat reverses the usual operatic equation: normally, it’s the music, not a piece of scenery, that tells you what characters are really feeling. So the tree did the talking for the people onstage (somebody had to), and the music was liberated to do other things than dealing with the narrative.
Each of the composers found their own way into the scenes to which they were assigned. What matters is not how they get there but that they did. The music was atmospheric stuff, including bossa nova (showing how the characters wanted to be) and splintered, abrasive free-form jazz (showing how they really were). At times, the score felt like aggressive film music, not trying to be stylistically consistent, as if to convey the non-linear crazy quilt of Chunky’s world. Definitely worthy of an organization that calls itself Experiments in Opera.
The score was played with great confidence by the chamber orchestra Contemporaneous, here a ten-player lineup of guitar, percussion and saxophone in addition to the usual strings. The entire cast was totally up to speed, with Sarah Daniels (in the title role) in particular ably coping with whatever the different composers handed her. In what must have been a casting coup, the mom was sung by Emily Geller with an androgynous voice that suggested she had been tucked and lifted to the point where she inhabited an alternative gender.
Yet Chunky in Heat could use another revision, the sort where the creators ask on a moment-by-moment basis if the opera is really doing its job. Example: One recurring character is a coyote who changes costume upon arrival and seems only to add needless surrealistic interludes — as if one needed to be told this opera doesn’t depict objective reality. Then there’s the awful title that almost makes you feel foolish for being there. Ever tried to get a date by saying, “Hey, wanna go see Chunky in Heat? It’s about a girl and her swimming pool.”
Postscript: In its previous location, The Flea Theater was a paragon of customer friendliness. At its spiffy, new-ish headquarters at 20 Thomas Street in Lower Manhattan’s government district, it still is.
PHOTO CREDIT: Reuben Radding. The above scene is the house of Chunky. Emily Geller is the mother; Timothy Stoddard is the boyfriend.