Notes in the Margin: Your Playlist for Ann Patchett's 'Bel Canto' | Nashville Public Radio

Notes in the Margin: Your Playlist for Ann Patchett's 'Bel Canto'

Sep 17, 2018

Ann Patchett's novel Bel Canto isn't about opera per se, but opera is so heavily featured it almost acts as another character. We've compiled a playlist of some of the music found in the story. Spoilers abound, but just enough that you can find the connection.


Lucia di Lammermoor:

Hosokawa falls in love with the voice of Roxane Coss when his daughter buys him a copy of Lucia di Lamermoor. The famous mad scene is a demanding showcase for coloratura sopranos. In the opera Lucia’s mental unraveling was caused by her captivity in an unwanted marriage. The soprano is disheveled in her evening gown - a look that becomes Roxane’s uniform throughout the novel.

La Sonnambula:

Three nights in a row Hosokawa sees Roxane perform in La Sonnambula, never approaching her. Apocryphally, composer Frederic Chopin asked for this aria to be played for him while he was on his deathbed. In the opera Alcina, a sleepwalker, sings this beautiful opera while in peril crossing a high bridge. The fear is that if she wakes she will surely fall to her death.


Referring to Roxane, Hosokawa “simply wanted to hear her sing Rusalka while standing close to her in a room.” The book doesn’t say specifically that Roxane is singing Song to the Moon when the lights go out, but it is implied from the quoted lyric. “If he is dreaming of me, let him wake.”


Father Arguedas eventually made peace with his love of opera, deciding that it was not actually sinful. Except for Carmen. He could avoid the lust of the other operas he enjoyed, except that it was so clear in Carmen that he couldn’t avoid it.


Messner, in trying to identify what it is about Roxane Coss that puts everyone under her spell, listens to recordings of her singing. Including Norma. Casta Diva is often taken as an example of the bel canto musical style, for which the book is named. Norma’s role is especially appropriate for Roxane. In this scene of the opera, the men are primed for war, but can’t go without Norma’s approval. Just as Roxane seems to somehow be in charge in Messner’s opinion, but he can’t seem to figure out what it is about her that puts her in charge.

Les Contes de Hoffmann:

When Roxane has accepted that she will be captive for some time, and decides to not let her voice go, one of the first pieces of sheet music she requests is The Tales of Hoffmann. Antonia’s aria is sung by a woman who is captive in her house due to illness, and missing her lover.

Madama Butterfly:


Roxane also requests music from several other operas, including Madama Butterfly. Though the title character is not exactly in captivity in Un bel di vedremo, she is waiting for a deliverance of sorts. An indeterminate wait in a beautiful house, albeit for different reasons, is the shared experience of Butterfly and Roxane.

Chopin Nocturne:

Everyone in the house is surprised to hear Tetsuya Kato play the piano when he began this nocturne. This piece, so simple alongside all of the opera being performed, coming as a surprise, seems to bring peace to the hostages and terrorists alike.

The Barber of Seville:

Without spoiling too much, Roxane performs this aria just as she’s becoming confident in her love, and her position in the house. A sense of happiness has come over the house among both the terrorists and the hostages. And this peak of happiness is, as is so common in opera, soon tragically shattered.