Bel Canto: The Book, The Opera and the Enduring Power of Connection

Just a quick meditation this holiday weekend…

Mom ListIn 2002, my mother, a voracious reader, started keeping a list of the books she read. At 72 she was worried that she couldn’t remember the several books she read every week. So she started to record each one she finished it in a small spiral notebook she kept beside her reading chair. Now that she can’t read at all and speaks very little, that small journal feels like a kind of message in a bottle. I love to flip through it and see the touchstones of time we spent together, books we talked about.

Back then I was amused by her desire to hang on to the memory of every single book she’d read. I was twenty years into bookselling and had been letting books wash over me for years. My filing system was more Darwinian: “Bad” books rarely got finished; “good” books were a pleasure to live with for a while, sharing with friends and customers; “great” books were the ones that became part of me.

Bel Canto is one of the books that made it into my neural weave and I hope will be lodged there forever. I still recall the listening to it on a long drive to Cape Cod—the richness of it, how completely I inhabited the world of captives inside the palace of a South American vice president. One of the several miracles of that book was how Patchett allowed an expansive universe to unfold inside a confined space—a world of opera, art, linguistic and romantic connection, a space where people came to understand and reinvent themselves.

That book held me in such thrall that I sat parked on the side of the road a mile from my friends’ home, putting off my vacation, so that I could listen to the end. And then I bought a copy of the book to read all over again that week.

This is all the long way around to letting you know that opera world superstar Renee Fleming has brought the sublime experience of this book to the stage. For those of you who count Bel Canto among the books that live inside you—and those of you who might want to discover it–I want to share the news of the opera and a few links I’ve been enjoying.

Reading about this new opera brought me to a page with Ann Patchett’s thoughts on creating the novel:

Bel Canto was less about opera for me and more about how people without a common language can communicate—first through a very clever translator, then through the power of art, and finally through love.”

During the holiday season it’s a gift to have the luxury of a little time to reflect. As I’m heading off to see my mother, who no longer reads or speaks, the memory of our time spent together with books is rich–and Patchett’s words remind me that human connection and communication endures.

Bel Canto: From the Page to the Stage (short intro)

A Conversation with Bel Canto author Ann Patchett and Lyric creative consultant Renée Fleming (deliciously long discussion)

Bel Canto (9780060838720) by Ann Patchett. $15.99 trade paper.

Bel Canto  (9780061565311) by Ann Patchett. $16.99 deluxe paperback.

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