Chapter 1: Opera, Language, and Terrorism

Ann Patchett in her novel Bel Canto wastes no time in giving us, her audience, glimpses into rich characters. I love that Roxanne Coss with her enchanting voice and presence, Katsumi Hosokawa and his love of opera, Gen Watanabe with his calming presence and almost protective relationship with Mr. Hosokawa, and even the oddly calm militant men holding the others hostage present themselves as characters who will continue to grow and develop in this novel. As the plot unfolds in this first chapter, Patchett layers exposition that culminates in a surprising takeover of a birthday party and hostage situation.

The rather intense love of opera Mr. Hosokawa maintains, along with the host country’s use of opera as a bargaining chip, originally sparked my interest in the origins of this art. Though I was involved in vocal music for eight years, opera was never a genre that attracted much of my attention. Other than that it takes intense muscle control, as well as a commanding voice and self-discipline, to become an accomplished opera singer, I knew very little about the art.

What I found when I opened this door was that opera developed first in Italy and then France as a way of impressing visiting foreign dignitaries and royals of the host nation’s wealth and power. Though the host country in Bel Canto was known for its lack of money, questionable business practices, and notorious political revolutionary splinter groups, it seems that this country was attempting to call on opera’s historical reputation for striking an imposing and inspiring presence.

In addition, I found that operas often told stories of mythological characters or themes that were intended to insinuate the ruler’s likeness to the gods or heroes in them. Monteverde’s Orfeo is considered the first recognizable opera, which was performed in Italy in 1607. Since its start, opera has become at one time or another popular throughout much of Europe, some parts of Asia and North America. Its effects are clearly far-reaching.

Another aspect of how opera is portrayed in this chapter that caught my attention is the spell-binding effect Roxanne’s voice and stage presence have on her audience, even the unschooled ragtag group of boys and young men who have come to crash the party. It was a combination of this and the description of Gen Watanabe’s job and relationship with Mr. Hosokawa that led me to my next avenue of research. Patchett explains that it is because Mr. Hosokawa recognizes his own voice in Gen’s translating that Gen is hired and kept on as his personal translator. Gen’s extensive repertoire of languages also contributed. Taken together, these two subjects made me wonder if there is a relation between language and music.

Chris Dobrian in his article “Music and Language” debates the connections between the two, and whether music can be considered a “universal language,” an idea coined by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in his first major poetic work, Outre-Mer: A Pilgrimage Beyond the Sea. Dobrian engages in great discussion of how music is able to so aptly capture certain states of emotion and can even evoke feeling or meaning that cannot be accurately defined by any known word or phrase. In fact, he cites Deryck Cooke’s The Language of Music in his statement that “music functions as a language of the emotions.” This brings to mind not only my own experiences with music, but also Ann Patchett’s description of Mr. Hosokawa’s first opera experience. She explains that he was moved to action, fulfilling the need to hold something, though he knew none of the language they were singing in. I expect the emotional pull of music to develop as a major theme in this novel.

Dobrian also muses on whether it can accurately be said that certain scale degrees or notes can be said to represent specific emotions, or whether it depends on the context and the one hearing them. Though perhaps the idea of each note expressing only one specific emotion is a bit extreme, there are chord structures and key signatures that are typically used for specific emotional meaning and tone. Dobrian eventually concludes that even though music follows general grammar and syntax rules, music cannot be said to be the “universal language” because these rules of symbols and grammar are subject to the culture in which they appear and the preference of the composer. However, I would argue that the same holds true for grammar and syntax of language in different dialects. Therefore, I would conclude that whether or not music is a universal language, it does function as a language.

The final subject of my research for this week is the movement of Islamic extremist group ISIS. I was rather intrigued by the fictional terrorist group in Bel Canto that holds the party guests hostage, as they appeared relatively nonviolent. This definitely cannot be said for the real threat ISIS poses to the surrounding areas and the journalists and aid workers of Western countries. In reading through a list of fast facts about the organization on CNN’s website, I was reminded of how young people are often drawn to radical movements, which is a parallel to the militant group in the book. What surprised me most in my findings about ISIS was that while they are Islamic extremists, they are suspected to have destroyed what was considered a sacred Islamic burial site. While they are executing people associated with Western culture or Christianity, they also planted a car bomb in a heavy-traffic marketplace in Iraq. Perhaps they are trying to purge what they consider to be the poison in their religion. Whatever the reason, it seems that there is often more at stake and more motivating these actions than what might be automatically obvious. I expect the same to be true of the militant jungle radicals in Bel Canto.

  • Sarah Riegel

Dobrian, Chris. “Music and Language.” UCI. University of California, Irvine, 1992. Web. 2 September 2015.

“ISIS Fast Facts.” CNN. CNN, 18 August 2015. Web. 3 September 2015.

“The Early History and Development of Opera.” Victoria and Albert Museum. Victoria and Albert Museum, 2015. Web. 2 September 2015.

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3 thoughts on “Chapter 1: Opera, Language, and Terrorism

  1. slaudeman says:

    I found it interesting that you called out the fact that operas typically call on mythological or fantastic characters. Especially since opera tends to create a relationship or comparison between the merely mortal and the gods or heroes. Perhaps that was one of Patchett’s intentions? By using the opera, she is creating a situation that could be read as connecting Coss and Hosokawa (for whom she is singing) to the immortal and magnificent.
    As you mention later, she also connects the group of boys to the pure and intangible idea of beauty and greater power through her voice. This creates a common language between the group of boys and the duo of Roxane and Hosokawa. By listening to the opera, everyone in the room is connected intimately with Coss and her gift of song and music. This then brings up the question of whether or not music is a language in and of itself. I would agree that the music is capable of expressing itself as a language, but also suggest that maybe the music is not the language of music, but a language of emotions. It seems to be an idea that transcends the language barrier, tying together a group of people from all over the world as they are thrown into a chaotic, unpredictable situation. We also talked about the way that opera can evoke emotions in you even when you do not know the language. Hosokawa’s memories show us that he has also experience that. Thus, I think that it is reasonable to say that music is a language of sorts, if not a form of communication entirely its own.

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  2. Colin Murphy says:

    Hi Sarah,

    An excellent contribution to our blog! Like you, I also studied music for nearly a decade – although certainly not of the vocal variety. Surprisingly when reading the chapter myself, I didn’t make any note of the “relationship between language and music.” After reading your post and taking some time to reflect, however, I can conclude that you’re absolutely right! Patchett writes of a relationship where the emotions gleaned from phonics and grammar of traditional languages are synonymous to those felt when listening to a musical arrangement or opera.

    Your research on Chris Dobrian’s “Music and Language” certainly did lead to a peculiar suggestion. How could music not convey such universal and strong emotion when opera has spread so far throughout Europe, Asia, and North America? And as you addressed in your post, Mr. Hosokawa is clearly drawn to Roxanne’s voice without even the aid of his translator! Dobrian’s musings on particular notes and harmonic relations don’t entirely make sense to me either. Of course notes are to music as words are to stories, though notes and words are meaningless by themselves. Each needs context and a relation to others in order to be properly analyzed.

    You deliver a strong argument suggesting the paths of music and language shall continue to cross as Patchett’s story progresses. I look forward to reading the next chapter with this relationship in mind so that I might possibly understand the intricate character development on a deeper level. I will leave you with a question: How might this literary relationship foreshadow future character interactions or explain previous encounters (i.e. with the terrorists and party-goers, Mr. Hosokawa and Gen, etc.)?

    – Colin

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  3. annawallace003 says:

    Although I have never been involved with music before, this book really opened my eyes up to the amount of talent it takes to be an opera singer. I found your research to be very interesting not only because of the fact that I know near to nothing about the opera but also because I feel like it is an important aspect of the book to be educated on.
    As you said in the beginning of your post, Roxanna Coss, Katsumi Hosokowa, Gen Watanabe, and the President are all connected through their love for opera. I think that this is going to further develop into a deeper connection between the four characters and it also caused me to be able to connect the dots in other parts of the chapter as well.
    I never connected that because Katsumi Hosokakw only speaks Japanese that he most likely isn’t able to understand the operas that he listens to, and certainly not Roxanne Coss. With that being said I agree with you that yes music should be considered a universal language because of the connection people are able to make with it. Music is able to carry so much emotion no matter what language is being spoken; it’s a beautiful form of art.
    The ISIS situation has been something that I found to be thought provoking as well. It’s a shame the young people feel the need to resort to such organizations however, after the class discussion I an second guessing if the terrorist ground in Bel Canto is attempting to cause harm.

    -Anna

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