Accidental Critic: Bel Canto, an Escape into Opera

Chicago's Lyric Opera House - Lobby

Chicago’s Lyric Opera House

I don’t even remember how it started. Well, yes I do; it started when I picked up Ann Patchett’s book Bel Canto in a bookstore. I bought it, read it straight through, then started right back at page 1 and did it all over again. That was not long after the book was published in 2001. I’ve re-read it every year or two since then.

What I don’t remember is when or how I learned that Bel Canto was being made into an opera—and by the Lyric Opera of Chicago, which is my local company. But I knew immediately that I needed to see it.

That’s where this journey began. I’d never seen an opera, but always wanted to. I have friends who love opera and friends who hate it; I figured I had a slightly better than 50-50 chance of enjoying it myself. The making of Bel Canto the opera meant the stars had aligned for me. I was going.

Oct. 29: Friend Jack tells me the Lyric is staging three free public events in conjunction with the opera’s premiere—and one is a discussion with Ann Patchett and Renée Fleming. Wow. Just wow! I’ve snagged tickets to the discussion, and also a chamber music concert featuring music curated by Jimmy Lopez, composer of the opera.

Bel Canto, the replacement copy

Nov. 5: I’ve started re-reading Bel Canto—yes, again—in anticipation of seeing the opera. It’s been long enough since I read it—and I’ve read it so many times already—that I wonder if it will still have the same magic for me. My guess is yes, but who’s to say? Is there some point at which you’ve just read any book often enough, and there’s nothing left for it to give or you to receive? I’ve never had this kind of long-term love affair with any other book, so I really don’t have a basis for knowing the answer. Can you believe I actually had to buy a new copy, though? I looked all over, for days and days, but couldn’t find mine anywhere. Murphy’s Law suggests it will turn up, now that I’ve re-purchased, but my guess is that I loaned it to someone who never got it back to me. But given the amount of pleasure I’ve taken from this book over the years, buying a second copy seems right–a small thank you to Ann Patchett for what she’s given me.

Nov. 8: Chamber concert was…interesting. Six pieces on the program: three by composers that influenced Jimmy Lopez, interspersed with three pieces by Lopez. I really enjoyed the first, kind of enjoyed the second; third was Stravinsky, which has never been my cuppa; and the rest were…interesting. Not bad, just not what my untrained ear and mind think of when I think of the word music. By the end, the concert felt to me like a conceptual exploration of instrumental sound. Atonal, sometimes cacophonous. But as a preparation for seeing the opera, definitely interesting, definitely worthwhile. I’m really intrigued to see what Lopez does with the musical score for the opera. There are parts of the story that seem perfectly suited to this type of music, and others where I can’t imagine it working. Even my husband—no big fan of opera—says he really wants to see the opera now, to hear what Lopez does with the score. An interesting note: The first piece on the program today fascinated both my husband and me because had we not seen it performed in person, we would each have assumed that there was more than one instrument playing, which in fact it was a solo performer playing two, somehow competing, musical lines on the same instrument at the same time. I was mesmerized. So this was an eye-opening, educational day for me.


Lyric Opera House Chicago – Inside the Ardis Krainik Theatre

Nov. 18: Heaven! Ann Patchett in person, and on top of that my first glimpse of Renée Fleming, at a discussion featuring just the two of them on topics ranging from Bel Canto the book, to Bel Canto the opera, to the creative process, and the life of a diva versus the writing life. They turn out to be very good friends, who had never met before Patchett wrote Bel Canto. I thought that Fleming, as creative consultant for the opera, would be interviewing Patchett at this event. But to the extent that there was interviewing being done, it was mostly Patchett interviewing Fleming. I guess I should have expected that; Fleming is the opera diva after all, and Patchett the writer.

It was absolutely fascinating to hear Patchett talk about her writing process generally, but especially her writing of Bel Canto. She confirmed the book was based on the 1996 terrorist take-over of the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru, and said she realized as the hostage crisis dragged on that she wanted to write about it. “I was following it on the news, and I thought, “This is a Patchett novel,’ ” she said. Brilliant. She said she was devastated when the crisis ended with the terrorists being killed…because those were her characters, and she knew that they would have to die in her story as well. She chose an opera singer as her main character, even though she’d never had any interest in opera, because she wanted to explore the question: “What if there’s not a common language? How do you tell a story without a common language?”

I took pages and pages of notes–just a million quotable moments on topics ranging from the book and the writing process, to development of the opera, the differences—and friendship—between Patchett and Fleming, and on and on. I’m going to re-read my notes and hope the live-stream of the discussion gets posted to YouTube by the Lyric so I can watch/listen again.

I finished re-reading the book before this event, and I have to say that it continues to surprise and amaze me. There are many things I had forgotten, and some that I’m not even sure I ever noticed before. (Having bought a new copy, there were no notes in the margins, no sticky notes next to passages that had stood out for me in the past.) I remembered the comedy of the scene in which the Russian, Victor Fyodorov, declares his love for Roxane. But I didn’t remember its profound messages about the nature of love, the uniting gift of music and art, or the cultural differences that art can bridge; did I ever notice those before? Victor declares his love and tells Roxane simply that “it is a gift” to her. That she has no love to return to him…doesn’t bother him at all. What if she said she loved him in return? He says:

“A beautiful thought, surely, but my wife would not be pleased. When you think of love you think as an American. You must think like a Russian. It is a more expansive view.”

And with that, the joke is not on him, but on her.

That’s just one example. This book just gives and gives and gives to me. I think perhaps I could re-read it every other year for the rest of my life, and never be disappointed.

Nov. 22: I have tickets! Six of us will go together to a mid-week performance, Tuesday Jan. 5. I’m excited beyond words. I wanted to get weekend tickets, to avoid being out so late on a work night, but scheduling with friends made that difficult. Alas. Our seats are on the main floor in the center, some distance back from the stage, but not in the very back. Good seats, from which I think I’ll be able to make an informed decision about whether opera is really for me. Opera! Bel Canto! Hooray!

Dec. 3: I’ve made a decision that I might regret. Having heard wonderful reviews of Renée Fleming in The Merry Widow, and not wanting to miss a chance to see her perform, I’ve bought tickets for The Merry Widow. That means Bel Canto will not be my first opera, because The Merry Widow closes in December. This makes me somewhat sad, and I really struggled with the decision. It does seem that Bel Canto should be my first; but balanced against the chance to see Renée Fleming, I’ve opted for Fleming. I must admit to being influenced by a Cyber Monday offer (valid all week) offering a great discount for any three-performance series, so I also bought tickets for Der Rosenkavalier (February) and Romeo and Juliet (March). I think I can safely expect to know by the end of March whether I like opera.

Dec. 5: A new quandary. I just learned that the world premiere performance of Bel Canto will be broadcast live on WFMT-FM. Should I listen in? I would love to experience the opening-night performance; but would it be better to wait for the full sensory experience in person? Fleming said during the Nov. 18 discussion that the human voice in opera is very different in person than on even the best recording; you just don’t hear the voice the same way. Add to that the extravaganza of costumes and scenery, and I’m afraid simply listening to the music will be a poor second-best. Especially for my first opera experience, would that be a mistake?

Dec. 7: Here’s my answer: I listened to the world premiere broadcast on radio, and I’m glad I did. For one thing, it was exciting and fun, and I’m not too proud to admit it. I was part of a very small cohort listening and tweeting about the performance, so I “met” a couple of people in cyberspace and wasn’t alone. (My husband listened as well, so I truly wasn’t alone at home, either.) Also, the good folks at the Lyric clearly have been building excitement via Twitter and other social media; so joining the Twitter conversation gave me a glimpse of the costumes and sets. They look gorgeous. And having now heard the music, I don’t think that doing so will diminish anything about the live performance.

That said, I don’t think listening in can substitute for live performance. Aside from the sound quality, it’s harder to concentrate without the multi-sensory immersion—with the lights on and nowhere to focus your eyes other than the supertitles shown on a computer screen. But listening in has only increased my enthusiasm to see this show. The music didn’t seem inaccessible to me—and I have worried that it might, given the nature of the chamber concert curated by Jimmy Lopez. It doesn’t seem easy, necessarily, but also not atonal nor impossibly conceptual. I feel plebeian saying this, but I was afraid of a purely conceptual exploration; I don’t think it is that. Plus, there’s a Gregorian chant somewhere in Act 2, and I love Gregorian chants.

Here’s a sneak preview, courtesy of Twitter:

Danielle de Niese as Roxane:

The set in Act 2:

Cesar’s solo:


Dec. 13: I have seen my first opera! Here’s what I’m thinking after attending The Merry Widow:

  • Acting, sets, costumes, voices—none of it fell short of expectations. This was every bit the spectacle I thought it would be. Unfortunately, I somehow missed out on the information that Renée Fleming was leaving the cast mid-way through the run, so I still haven’t seen her perform. I’m disappointed by that, but not because of Fleming’s replacement in the lead role of Hanna, Nicole Cabell, who was superb. I hope I’ll have another opportunity to see the legendary Fleming perform; I already know that I like opera well enough to want that.
  • I enjoyed myself, but does that mean I like opera? I’m not sure. First, The Merry Widow is an operetta—which kind of makes me want to say “barely an opera.” The players were mostly opera singers, but the music and theme very light and fun, and there’s a good deal of spoken language (rather than sung); plus, of course, The Merry Widow is in English. So how will I react to something in a different language or something very, very dark or serious? Will it become difficult? Or will I perhaps love it even more? Nothing to do but wait and see.
  • I’m glad my first opera wasn’t Bel Canto because this experience taught me something important: Even if the lyrics are in my native language, I will not understand them when sung in operatic voice, and I therefore need to be well acquainted with the story and the libretto in advance. Otherwise, I risk having my focus distracted by reading the supertitles, and I might miss the performance on stage. Despite The Merry Widow being in English, I spent too much time looking at the titles. Fortunately, I know the Bel Canto story backward and forward, so there’s less risk there. But I will try to get hold of the libretto, or at least the libretto notes, to read in advance of the performance. Looking further ahead, this will be even more important when I see Der Rosenkavalier, which I really don’t know at all.

Jan. 4: I see Bel Canto tomorrow night, and I think I’m ready. I’ve read all of the material the Lyric has posted about the opera on its website, including the libretto notes. Having already re-read the book and listened to the premiere broadcast, there’s not much more I can do to prepare. Is there?

Bel Canto: The stage before curtain time

Bel Canto: The stage before curtain time

Jan. 5: Tonight was the night—and I loved it. First off, the sets were amazing. A. Maz. Ing. With the palace as the set throughout the performance, the production uses projection to show the world outside—day changing to night changing to day; the fog that settles over the city and the dazzling sunshine that coaxes terrorists and hostages outside when the fog lifts; flashing lights from emergency vehicles. It was both gorgeous and effective. In the second act, two new set structures move out onto the stage: Roxane’s bedroom, cantilevered out from above as the second floor on one side of the stage; a kitchen cupboard at floor level on the other, catty-corner from the bedroom. In these two locations, the simultaneous love stories of Roxane/Hosokawa and Gen/Carmen unfold as the audience watches both. And hears both, as singers in the two opposite areas of the set sing into and over each other, not quite intertwining but not competing, either. This was a hallmark of the music throughout the performance—multiple voices singing, not in harmony, but rather seeming to perform different songs simultaneously. Although difficult to separate and isolate sometimes, it was a moving way to show the competing interests and viewpoints of the characters, and also to collapse the amount of time needed to tell this complicated story; rather than characters telling their own stories in isolation, they told their stories simultaneously—as if talking over each other in the chaos created by events on stage.

All of that worked for me amazing well, but I don’t know if it would work as well for someone who didn’t already know this story. In fact, a couple of the friends I attended with seemed a bit overwhelmed by the experience, though they have far more experience with classical music and opera than I. One said during intermission, “That’s a really crowded stage!”—and it was, though I really hadn’t noticed. Throughout most of the production, the stage is crowded with both terrorists and hostages; rarely do one or two people stand alone on it, or sing alone. Having precious little experience with which to compare it, I nonetheless suspect that it wasn’t just the stage that was crowded, but also the music itself. Lopez’s score packs in a lot of musical lines—melodies?—layering on top of each other and mixing together, but not really harmonizing in a classic sense. It’s busy; it’s dense. There’s as much going on musically as visually.

And did I mention that eight different languages come into play? While much is in English, there’s an almost equal amount of Spanish (which, if you know Spanish, is actually easier to understand in operatic voice than the English). Two of our main characters being from Japan, there’s a good bit of Japanese as well, plus French, German, Latin, Russian and Quechua. Supertitles projected above the stage translate all of that, of course, so the language itself isn’t a barrier for the audience. But it adds another layer to an already multi-layered and very dense production.



Personally, I think it was a perfect adaptation of this book, which is so much about the similarities that unite people from immensely divergent backgrounds. In the book, we grow to love the terrorists and hostages equally, as both we and they discover their kinship. While language separates them, they discover music that brings them together. And yet this discovery of similarities causes additional turmoil sometimes, as the terrorists struggle to retain separation from their hostages as they work toward the political goal that brought them to the palace for a hostage-taking in the first place.

For me, the many layers of music and language combined with a crowded set and somewhat crowded story-telling to bring this book to stage in a compelling way that felt very true to Patchett’s book. In fact, Patchett sang the praises of Nilo Cruz’s libretto in her November appearance with Fleming, saying, “It should be the Cliff’s Notes for the book.” Lopez’s music seemed the perfect accompaniment to this. Music and libretto combined to pull it all together beautifully.

Would someone less familiar with the book feel the same way? Perhaps not, judging from some of my friends’ reactions. Among six of us who attended, at least two were something less than thrilled by the production. So it might be that my personal connection with the book won me over to the opera—or perhaps prepared me, or moved me to prepare myself. It might be that my homework paid off; I know this story inside out, and by attending the Lyric’s events leading up to the actual production, I knew enough about Jimmy Lopez’s music to have some idea what to expect.

I’m still not certain whether I’m going to turn out to be an opera afficionado. I’ll decide after seeing Der Rosenkavalier and Romeo and Juliet whether there’s a lot more opera in my future. But I’ll do my homework in advance of those. I’ll read the libretto or libretto notes and perhaps listen to a recording or the opening-night radio broadcast. That’s my lesson moving forward.

My Bel Canto journey won’t end here. I expect that I’ll continue to read and re-read this book every couple of years, as I have done for more than a decade already, unless and until I eventually find that it has nothing more to give to me. I doubt that will ever happen.

For now, I think Roxane Coss’s aria dedicated to Hosokawa at the beginning of the opera sums up my tale perfectly. Given my love affair with this amazing book, once the Lyric Opera decided to commission and stage this work, “I was destined to come here.” Here’s Danielle de Niese singing “You Were destined to Come Here,” from Scene 1 of the opera.


KimTankMich-eilKim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at


Accidental Critic: “I thought I made you up!” (Discussion between Ann Patchett and Renée Fleming)

Lyric Opera of Chicago Broadcasts on WFMT-FM


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