Katsumi Hosokawa, the head of Japan’s largest electronics company, is celebrating his birthday at a party thrown for him by the government of an unnamed poor South American country, which hopes he will open a factory in their country. The birthday party is being held in the mansion of the vice president of the country.
Opera diva Roxanne Coss has just finished performing her last song for the party’s entertainment when her accompanist makes a motion to kiss her. Still enraptured with the music they’ve heard, many in the audience imagine that they are doing the same. At that moment, all the lights in the room go off. At first the characters are unconcerned, assuming the darkness is simply due to a power failure. They continue to applaud and to imagine the kiss they cannot see. Hosokawa, the narrator tells us, has been in love with the singer’s voice for many years, and only agreed to attend this party in his honor in order to hear her sing in person. He has no intention of building a factory in the country, but he couldn’t turn down the opportunity to be close to the diva.
The narrator explains that Hosokawa first heard and fell in love with opera on his eleventh birthday. The year was 1954, and money was tight, so Hosokawa’s outing to the opera with his father was especially precious. Opera might be too complicated for children in normal circumstances, but since World War II had only recently ended in Japan’s defeat, children were able to understand the kind of dark stories dramatized in opera. Hosokawa was intensely moved by the performance of Rigoletto, and his love of opera stayed with him into adulthood. Hosokawa worked hard, rose to prominence, married, and started a family, but it was only when he listened to opera that he fully felt his own capacity for love. When his eldest daughter bought him a recording of Roxanne Coss for his birthday, he fell in love with her voice, amazed at the simultaneous control and recklessness of her singing.
One of the men at the birthday party is Simon Thibault, the French ambassador to this South American country. Standing in the darkness, Thibault notices many little lights shining from beneath one of the doors. He realizes that these are flashlights, and suddenly understands that they are all in grave danger. He hugs his wife. Moments later, the lights come on.
The narrator digresses to explain the preparations for the beautiful party—the food prepared for the banquet, the arrangement of the flowers, the creation of the place cards, the hanging of the famous painting. A great deal of effort and money were expended by this poor country in an attempt to woo a man who has no intention of being wooed. The narrator explains that the country’s president, Masuda, is absent from the party because at the last minute he decided he could not bear to miss an important episode of his favorite soap opera.
After the lights go on, three generals and their band of young terrorists rush in. They are members of an organization devoted to the overthrow of the repressive government and the liberation of the people. The guests think of fleeing, but quickly realize there is no escape. They all believe they will be killed by the terrorists. The narrator tells us that in fact, the hostages will survive and the terrorists will be killed.
In an aside, the narrator explains that Hosokawa first met his translator, Gen Watanabe, at a business conference in Greece. Watanabe, who can predict Hosokawa’s needs even before Hosokawa himself knows them, has become indispensable to Hosokawa.
The generals who head the terrorist group ask for President Masuda to come forward. When the vice president tells them he is not at the party, one of the generals hits him in the face with the butt of his gun. But when the vice president explains that President Masuda stayed home to watch his soap opera, the explanation seems too absurd to be a lie, and the vice president is not harmed further. The generals realize they have no backup plan.
In the opening scene of the novel, the simultaneous blackout and kiss serve as symbols of love in the face of death and connection in the face of loss. Together they introduce a central theme of the novel: the basic human impulse to love despite, and because of, the knowledge of inevitable loss and death. This theme also points to the novel’s inspirations: opera, most directly, which features many stories about happiness ending in death, and Greek tragedy, more indirectly, from which the tradition of opera grows. In Greek tragedy, characters struggle to live their lives honorably despite impending disaster.
The blackout is also something of a wink to the audience—an acknowledgment that a story is being told. The blackout happens right after Coss’s performance ends. When the lights go on, a new drama begins, the drama that unfolds during the four months when the hostages are held captive. By starting and ending her novel with the extinguishing of lights, Patchett recalls the conventions of theater and acknowledges the artificiality of her story.
A brief description of Bel Canto makes the novel sound like a political thriller, but Patchett is just as concerned with the nuances of her characters as she is with plot. The first chapter sets up the precedent for the rest of the novel, in which the narrator moves from character to character, delving into the emotions and histories of each one. In Chapter One, frequent digressions lead us away from the main action and into the histories of several characters. From the outset, Patchett suggests that what will matter most in this story is not the action, but the characters, and the relationships that form between them. In Chapter One, Patchett violates a standard thriller convention by giving away the end of the story. The narrator explains that the hostages will live and the terrorists will die. Toward the end of the novel, the narrator repeatedly says that in order for the characters to believe that their love for one another and their happiness together can last, they have to stop thinking about the future. They must forget about the fact that some of them are hostages and some of them are terrorists, and forget that government troops are bound to attack the terrorists and sever the ties they’ve formed. By telling us how the novel is going to end, Patchett puts us in the same position as her characters. She asks us to take pleasure in the ties the characters form, even though we know that the novel will end in tragedy and death.
In reminding us that tragedy awaits, Patchett also follows in the tradition of Greek tragedy, in which the chorus sees and knows more than the other characters and often sounds a note of caution. In this novel, the narrator takes on the role of the chorus.