Bel Canto

by: Ann Patchett

Motifs

Opera

Opera suffuses Bel Canto,the title of which comes from opera and means “beautiful song.” Roxanne Coss sings, Tetsuya Kato accompanies her, and a star is born in the person of Cesar, who has an angelic voice. Opera connects the characters in the novel, giving them a source of joy during their captivity. The novel borrows its structure from operas, which typically feature beautiful scenes and songs and end in tragedy. Like operas, Bel Canto is about an idyllic world eventually shattered by death.

Language Barriers

On a literal level, the characters in Bel Canto speak different languages. Without Watanabe’s interpreting skills, they are helpless to communicate with one another. The characters’ awareness that language separates them intensifies their desire to communicate, and Watanabe is in constant demand.

On a more abstract level, the characters have difficulty talking to one another simply because language is a flawed means of communication. When we try to put an idea into words, we are acting as Watanabe does—translating our feelings and thoughts into language. But translations are never perfect, and we can never communicate precisely what we mean through language.

Secret Passions

Many characters in Bel Canto hide their passions. For most of his life, Kato hides his talent for playing the piano from everybody but his family. Hosokawa does not take pains to conceal his love for the opera, but he does not talk about the opera or about why it moves him. Watanabe and Carmen literally hide their love, meeting secretly in a china closet. Hosokawa and Coss also keep their love private.