We're excited to introduce Notes in the Margin, a series where we'll share books that we think 91Classical listeners will enjoy, whether it be a composer biography, a riveting piece of music scholarship, or a novel with a plot that is particularly musical. In addition to interviews with authors, we'll also be including a hand-picked playlist to accompany each book, so you can kick back and listen while you read.
Nashville author Ann Patchett released Bel Canto in 2001 to much acclaim, and it earned her the Orange Prize for Fiction and PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction the next year. Since then, the book has been turned into an opera, and a film version slated to be released this month has re-ignited interested in Patchett's novel.
We thought this would be the perfect time to chat with Patchett about her experience writing the novel, how she learned to love opera, and her friendship with world-renowned opera singer Renée Fleming.
On how she decided her heroine, Roxane Coss, should be an opera singer:
"It is very, very loosely based on a real event [the 1996 hostage crisis at the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru], and in the real event, all the women were set free right away, and in my book many of the guests are set free. But I thought, ok, they’re gonna keep one woman, so why would they choose this one person? I decided that because she was the most important woman at the party, she had been brought in at great expense, and then I was thinking, is she a pianist? Is she a cellist? You know, what would she do? And I finally decided that she would be an opera singer because it would have a sense of the universal language. This book is largely about the suspension of language and communication, so there’s one genius translator, Gen Watanabe, who’s at the party, but he is completely overworked. So at first, everyone is trying to communicate through him, and then they try and communicate really through their love of art."
On how she learned to love opera:
"The thing that I found that made such a wonderful difference was a book by a guy named Fred Plotkin called Opera 101... and it really was like taking a class. It really explained how to listen to opera, and to sit down and read the libretto first, and then to listen to the whole opera while you’re reading the libretto again. I had never had that experience, where I would just sit down with a piece of music in my own home and listen to it. Music for me was always just something that was on in the background while I was doing something else, and it’s an amazing experience to just focus on a piece of music and really listen.
And also, I started going to the opera, and getting to see it was a lot of the joy for me, and it’s so wonderful because now we have these HD broadcasts in the theater, and we also have the wonderful Nashville Opera, which wasn’t around when I was working on this. And so if you can have a chance to actually see an opera, that’s great, but I would urge people not to just go in cold for the first time. I mean, set yourself up for success rather than failure. Do a little work in advance and it will really pay off."
On the influence of Renée Fleming, who performs Roxane’s voice in the film:
“What’s been very moving to me in the years that I’ve known Renée, and there’ve been times we’ve been out for breakfast at 8:00 in the morning or we’ve gone to a restaurant after an opera at midnight, and everywhere we go people come up to the table, and they’ll stop her on the street and they say ‘I was listening to you sing when my daughter was born, I was listening to you sing on my wedding day, I was listening to you sing when my father was dying. You were there at all the great moments in my life.’ Again and again and again. I mean, she must hear this every single time she leaves her house, and she’s so gracious and beautiful and always really moved. She has an ability to genuinely connect with people, every time they stop her and tell her these stories, she’s so touched by them. But that’s what you want to get across—that this is the voice that represents the deepest, truest moments, most private, most in-your-own-soul moments of your life. Perfect example, a few days ago she sang “Danny Boy” at John McCain’s funeral, and it becomes literally the voice, the sound of how we are feeling at this moment of loss and pride and honor and love. And that’s what I was trying to get on paper.”
On how she decided who would die (and who wouldn’t) at the end of the book:
“I never thought of killing Roxane, because Roxane is just such a bulletproof character. You know, she is so tough, and so the leader. There’s nothing in my brain that can conceive of her dying. And just the fact that actually she is hurt, emotionally, but she grows enough and opens herself up enough to love and to experience pain — that to me seemed like the trajectory of her growth, not that she had to die for love.”
Listen to our Bel Canto playlist here.
This interview was edited for length and clarity. Click here for a full transcript.