Editor’s Note: Since I will soon be publishing my own opera novel, I thought I’d repost a review of a very fine, award-winning opera novel.
I don’t do many book reviews on “Operatoonity,” but since we are featuring North American opera this month, I wanted to mention a beautiful read by a North American author that employs classic opera as a backdrop.
The book is called Bel Canto, and for me it was a life-changing read. Bel Canto is a highly acclaimed novel by Ann Patchett that bridges literary and suspense writing. It won both the Orange Prize for fiction and also the Pen/Faulkner Award in 2002. An opera motif is a major thematic thread in the story.
As you most likely know, “Bel canto” is a term from opera that refers to a style of singing that emphasizes beautiful tone, good phrasing, and a clean articulation of words, popularized in the 19th Century in Europe.
More than any other single work, his book conveyed to me the importance that opera holds in some people’s lives. Granted, that could be because I’m a writer, and I respond to the language of words before the language of music.
If you don’t know the book, here’s what it’s about:
Bel Canto revolves around a famous opera singer who is taken hostage by local insurgents while singing at a private birthday party for a Japanese businessman. The siege takes place in the home of the vice president of an unstable South American country. The kidnappers’ plan is foiled from the beginning—their target—the president of the country is a no-show; he decided not to attend the party after all. So the guerrillas make a list of demands, which neither the police nor the government intend to meet—none of the hostages are very valuable, except for the opera singer.
This is a character-driven piece of literary fiction with a strong plot. The inciting incident, the siege, is a riveting plot point, setting the stage for deep character development. The end is also gripping. What’s interesting about this book is that language is always in the foreground—that’s what makes it literary. The author doesn’t care whether the reader has any knowledge of opera in building the story—it’s only used as a tool for developing character and plot.
Bel Canto does an exquisite job conveying there are people around the world with a fervent, even reverent love for opera—that the human voice is a powerful seductress and may be the best and the finest instrument in the world as “played” by some. That listeners have a deep and visceral connection with opera. That certain composers and arias can awaken things in the human soul that other forms of art cannot. And of course, opera celebrates the human voice. No one comes to the opera primarily to hear the orchestra. Opera is also an acquired taste, and I like the way Ann Patchett showed how these characters acquired their love for opera, when it applied, and what about opera and opera singers other characters less familiar with opera came to love.
If you haven’t read the book and you enjoy both an engrossing read and classic opera, you absolutely must put it on your reading list.