Every moment of Bel Canto takes place in the vice president’s mansion, which becomes symbolic of a hidden, private world. Fog settles around the mansion, cutting it off from the outside, and no one but Joachim Messner can come and go. The mansion becomes a cocoon in which characters focus on their own thoughts and feelings and on their love for the people around them, undistracted by the busy outside world.
Art connects people by expressing shared feelings of love and loss. High art like opera functions this way, and so does low art like soap operas. In Bel Canto, soaps symbolize art’s powers of unification. The president of the country misses the party to watch a soap opera that the entire country is also watching. In a lyrical scene, Patchett describes the way the soap transfixes everyone from young terrorists to the president. By watching the soap, the country experiences emotions and catharsis as a unified group.
The opera Rusalka symbolizes the fear that deep love will end in terrible suffering. Rusalka, which is the centerpiece of Coss’s repertoire, is about a water goddess who wants to love a human prince. She has a witch give her human form, but the transformation comes with a curse: when her human lover is untrue, her embrace becomes deadly. The goddess’s lover repents for straying and begs for her love. At the end of the opera, the goddess and the lover embrace, knowing that that embrace will kill the lover.
The child terrorists who take over the vice president’s mansion symbolize the danger that accompanies every sweet part of life: innocence, love, joy. The child terrorists play games, wonder at the world, and long for the affection of the adults around them. But they wear uniforms, wield guns, and hold their hostages for months. Their innocence isn’t pure, just as love isn’t perfect, and joy isn’t lasting.