When Prose Imitates Opera

Sunday, March 04, 2012

While opera is not one of my favorite musical styles to actually partake of (unless you are a 20th centruy rock opera-Rent, I'm looking at you!), I have an enormous amount of respect for the history of the genre and the amount of hard work and dedication that it takes to do it right.  My wife, in fact, is studying opera and has herself performed in The Mikado and The Magic Flute, to name a few.  And while the operatic voice is not necessarily as beautiful to my ear as other voices (except my wife, of course, who has the voice of an angel), the thing that I love about opera is the over-the-top, completely unbelievable story-lines.  It's as though the word melodrama was invented just to describe classic opera.  Impossible love triangles, terrible tragedies, moments of silliness completely unlike anything in reality-opera is a place where literally anything can happen in the span of a three-hour performance and the audience just soaks it all up.

It is the storytelling at the heart of opera that Anne Patchett manages to convey so beautifully in her novel, Bel Canto.  Bel Canto tells the story of a group of foreign businessmen and diplomats taken hostage during a failed attempt to kidnap the president of a small South American country.  Along with the 59 male hostages is one woman, Roxanne Coss, a world-famous opera singer who was flown in specially to sing for the birthday of a wealthy businessman from Japan.  Once the hostages and their captors have settled in for a long siege, new relationships begin to form, friendships blossom, and talent emerges from the most unlikely of places.

While the premise for the book comes from a real event-the taking of the Japanese embassy in Peru by a group of separatist guerrillas-Patchett admits that the story of what actually happened inside the embassy is known only to those that were there.  Her story is all her own.  The house where the hostages are kept becomes an island of timelessness in a sea of reality.  While those outside the walls continue to think about the future and how the drama will end, everyone inside the house eventually sees it a their only world.  The line between hostage and hostage taker gets pretty blurry, even from the beginning, when it becomes clear that the young people that the "generals" recruited for their cause had no real idea what they are getting into.  Everyone is equally trapped, and eventually the boundaries between adversaries break down.

Perhaps the most important character is Gen (pronounced with a hard G), a translator who came to the party at the side of his employer Mr. Hosakawa.  It is for Mr. Hosakawa that Ms. Coss was brought to the country-he is a great fan of opera, almost to the point of obsession.  After the initial take-over by the rebels, Gen becomes the only person who can speak the languages of all of the parties present.  Through Gen and his translating activities, we are able to access the conversations of characters who would otherwise be silent-Russian and Japanese and French and Dutch all translated in Gen's unemotional style.  But as time goes on, Gen begins to realize that while he is fluent in so many languages, he rarely uses any language, including his own, to share his own feelings and desires.  Pretty soon most of the characters have found other was to communicate, and this I think is one of the themes of the book-the universality of the human experience.

What is really remarkable about this book is the way that the narrative structure reads like an opera.  Once you have it in your mind that the story is operatic, you can pick out passages that would be arias, passages that are duets, places where the librettist felt that there needed to be a bit of "comic" relief.  Long, long paragraphs spanning more than a page, which would feel awkward and rambling in another context, take on the air of a passionate solo performed with a great depth of emotion.  Apparently, the average reader is not the only one who appreciates the operatic nature of the writing-the Lyric Opera of Chicago will be premiering the adaptation of the novel in its 2015-2016 season.

In the end the story is a tragedy, as so many operas are.  As the reader you understand that there is really only one way that this story could end-the only way that any story like this ends.  But still you hope for something to happen, some deus ex machina to come along and pluck the characters you care about from their inevitable destruction.  But just like opera, when the lights go down on this novel much of the audience is left weeping from the beauty and sadness of it all.


  1. Beautiful review. I still remember the first time I read this book, sitting out on a stunningly beautiful beach between the Pitons on St. Lucia and yet being transported away on Patchett's words to another world entirely. A book has to be be more than just pretty good to make the reader forget she is in paradise!

  2. A lovely review. I am a big fan of opera and have heard nothing but good about this book.

    I would love to see the opera. But I'm a little leery of the book because, at the moment, I've had my fill of unhappy endings.

  3. One of my favorite books of all time. I like the opera parallel and had never thought of the book that way. I first listened to this book as an audiobook, and it was very well done. Ive since read it several times and it is still my favorite novel by Ann Patchett.


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