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.