Study Guide

Bel Canto

By Ann Patchett

Bel Canto Introduction

The Magic Flute, La Boheme, The Marriage of Figaro, the Iran hostage crisis. If you're thinking One of These Things is Not Like the Others, chances are most people would agree with you. But not Ann Patchett. Her 2001 novel Bel Canto is about what happens when a pack of high-profile politicians and an opera singer get captured by terrorists at a party in an unnamed South American country.

Weird as it sounds at first, maybe opera and terrorism aren't such a strange combination. Movies like Mission Impossible—Rogue Nation and Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows show our heroes fighting terrorists during tense opera house scenes. Plus, when it comes down to it, opera is almost always about intense human emotions at their most dramatic. Which you can definitely make an argument for where hostage situations are concerned. Looks like Ann Patchett is onto something.

Basically, dramatic situations (like, yes, being held hostage) bring out the extreme emotions humans are capable of. Strangely, that's also true of art. But art, in addition to being a whole lot less dangerous than a terrorist takeover, also has the power to transform that emotion into an exploration of something new. Plus, art is something you actually want to explore—unlike, say, being locked up in a house and ordered around by people with guns.

At its core, this book is about the way art can transform circumstances. For the characters in Bel Canto, opera is what transforms a hostage crisis from a terrifying and awful experience into a gateway to exploring new experiences and perspectives. The characters in the book are forced into new emotional territory by their circumstances, and in that new territory they discover worlds they'd never imagined. It's the presence of art—in this case, opera—that helps them find new territories that contain wonder as well as fear.

For the record, as far as ways to discover art go, Shmoop recommends just buying some new CDs rather than getting yourself into a hostage situation.

What is Bel Canto About and Why Should I Care?

You may not be an opera fan—and let's hope you're never anywhere near an international hostage crisis—but you likely know what it's like to find a movie or book or song that describes what you're feeling and shows you new ways to hope, even during your hardest times. Breakups are lousy, but a breakup song crafted by a disappointed singer/songwriter can be an amazing experience for artist and audience alike. That's just one example of how art can transform what it touches.

Whether it's punk rock, pop, or good ole Raffi tunes (who doesn't love "Baby Beluga"?), there's likely some kind of music that helps you imagine a better life, or at least explore the new things you can only learn on a day when you get up on the wrong side of the bed. For the characters in Bel Canto, it's most often opera that does that. But opera in this novel can stand in for whatever art transforms a bad experience from a pity party into an exploration of something new. The characters move from being paralyzed with fear to exploring a whole new world, all without leaving the house. It's art that opens the door to that exploration. Most teenagers can identify with that.

And even if opera doesn't usually float your boat, Patchett does make those parts pretty thrilling examples of art at its most intense. So even if you're not an opera fan, it's easy to see why opera is a good symbol of how art transforms things in the book. Opera is the Olympic figure skating of art in the book: showy, impressive, and unforgettable. Proof? Take a peek at Alexei Yagudin's "Man in the Iron Mask" program at the 2002 Olympics and you'll see the figure-skating version of Bel Canto.

And that's what opera does in Bel Canto. It shows off what art can do at its most dramatic, and that lets us see what art can do in quieter ways as well. You don't need a quadruple toe loop to appreciate that.

Basically, Bel Canto uses an improbable and frightening situation to explore human hopes, desires, and dreams at their most intense. It does this especially by asking what art can do for us, how it transforms even a really bad situation into something with the possibility of experiencing beauty and wonder. Oh, by the way, it also won the PEN/Faulkner award. If that's not a reason to care, we're done trying.

Bel Canto Resources

WEBSITES

Bel Canto Really Does Mean Beautiful Singing
And check out the website for the opera to be sure.

Bury the Hatchet With Ann Patchett
Does that sound creepy? It's all for the rhyme, we promise. And it gets you on your merry way to her very own website.

Parnassus Books
Ann Patchett's not only a writer. She also co-owns a bookstore in Nashville.

MOVIE OR TV PRODUCTIONS

Not So Much
But wait—there is an opera! And a video recording of it is planned for the PBS Great Performances series. Thank goodness.

But Is It Any Good?
Find out for yourself. Or not for yourself, but read the review of the opera.

ARTICLES AND INTERVIEWS

What Does She Really Think?
Here's an interview with Ann Patchett about Bel Canto. Get all the dirty secrets you thought you were getting from actually reading the book.

That Would Never Happen
You're right. But you're also kind of wrong, because the plot is at least based on true events. Here's the New York Times article about the inspiration.

Opera Ain't Stuck in the 17th Century
And here's an article about an opera star who communicates via social media with fans to prove it.

Stockholm Syndrome History
There seem to be at least a few real-life cases where people who are kidnapped start to identify with their kidnappers to varying degrees. Some people call it Stockholm Syndrome. Scholars debate how often this really happens and what it really means, but here's a nice, short history of the term.

VIDEO

Gilda and Rigoletto Duet from Rigoletto
Yes, the Met does have Facebook. And this is short, if you just want a small taste of opera and not a four-course meal.

"Ride of the Valkyries"
Okay, so the book doesn't do a ton with the Valkyries, but it's a famous opera reference. So famous it's where that Viking hat stereotype came from. And this Met recording released to YouTube in 2012 is just so cool it makes even Wagner doubters want to watch. For a few minutes, if not four hours.

AUDIO

Renee Fleming, "O Mio Babbino Caro"
An over-the-top performance of a famous (and rather funny) aria that is featured in Bel Canto.

Joyce DiDonato on Alcina
That's a mouthful. Joyce (that part's easy enough) DiDonato, one of the few opera stars known for social media savvy, gives an impassioned description of Alcina, the opera that Mr. Hosokawa loved listening to that time he was stuck at home with food poisoning.

IMAGES

Rigoletto
Richard Tucker playing Rigoletto at the Metropolitan Opera in 1971.

Tosca
Here's the art from the first edition of the piano score for the opera in question, which depicts the death of the character Scarpia in Act II. Don't worry, it's not too graphic.