The bel canto technique in operatic singing focuses on perfect evenness of the voice and has its origins in an ancient vocal method. The late 19th century saw this style of opera reach its height. Bel canto singers of the last century included Maria Callas and Mario Lanza.
What do I know about opera? I know that my Italian grandfather adored it as did his father before him. They managed to go to the opera even during the Depression when money could have been used for other things, but maybe that was the point.
I know that my favorite Christmas music includes Mario Lanza singing "We Three Kings." That's about the extent of my knowledge of anything to do with bel canto or opera.
So, why would I read Ann Patchett's Bel Canto? I have to admit that the appeal wasn't that strong. I picked it up after Chris gave it to me, and I put it down. I picked it up again and read a few pages — I couldn't get into it. I took it on a trip and only read a couple of chapters. But then it took up residence on my nightstand, amongst many others, and I finally picked it up again. This time, I resolved to finish it. I wanted to finish it before the year was over, and I succeeded.
It wasn't an easy read for me. It took me several days even though the length of the book was such that I should have been able to read it in a couple of sittings. But the pace of the book has an evenness to it that doesn't encourage speed. Maybe the book itself employs a bel canto technique.
Patchett uses one of my favorite literary devices — a group of disparate people, who — under normal circumstances — would never interact, are drawn together in an unusual circumstance. The action and drama ensue from that contact. In this case, Patchett devises a birthday party for an influential Japanese businessman in a South American country, whose people are trying to persuade him to open a factory there. To convince him to come to the party, they have invited his favorite opera singer to perform at the vice president's home. He cannot resist the private performance and he accepts.
The party is for a couple of hundred people, quite an international cast of characters. It is a huge success. But just as Roxane Coss ends her last note, armed gunman invade the residence. The terrorists are there to kidnap the president, but he is not there. With their carefully laid plan thwarted, they take everyone hostage.
The impasse that is reached between the negotiators and the terrorists force a prolonged captivity for all concerned. What follows is the development of the relationships between the terrorists and their hostages. You know that it is not going to end well — Patchett tells you that early on in the story. Who is released, who dies, who comes to care for whom are the reasons you keep on reading.
Patchett unfolds the characters' back stories in a way that reminded me of why I became so engrossed in the television show Lost. Learning who each character is, where they come from, and what role they are going to play in this particular setting kept me turning the pages, albeit slowly.
I could picture these people that Patchett had drawn for me, and I became involved in what happened to them. I wanted to learn how it all turned out. Ultimately, though, I just wasn't satisfied with the ending.
Maybe I just don't understand opera.