Stranger than Fiction: The Events Inspiring Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto

I wanted to share a little tidbit I learned about Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto in my post-read-research-frenzy. (Do you also read you can get your hands on about a book after you’ve finished reading it?) If you don’t want to know anything more about the plot, please skip the rest of this post – I won’t be offended! Sometimes it’s nice to go into a book not knowing anything that happens. But knowing the plot also won’t necessarily spoil the book for you, because the writing is so divine.

I briefly mentioned the plot of the book in one of the previous posts, but to expand a little more: this book takes place at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country. The country is hosting a birthday party for an important Japanese company’s CEO in hopes of enticing him to build factories in their country, when the mansion is stormed by rebels and everyone is taken hostage, both the important international guests and the caterers and staff.

Interestingly, the plot was loosely inspired by a real event which occurred between 1996-1997 in Lima, Peru. This is often referred to as the Japanese embassy hostage crisis or the Lima Crisis. On December 17, 1996, the Japanese ambassador of Peru threw a birthday party in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday. The party took place in the ambassador’s private home and was stormed by 14 members of the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA). There were hundreds of people at the party, and while most of them were freed shortly after the takeover, the remaining guests were held hostage for 126 days, which is a little over four months!

Image Credit: Corbis Images

A note about the ambassador’s home: the Japanese government outfitted the home to be like a fortress, ideal for keeping people out, which may be a little ironic in this situation. The house was surrounded by a 12 foot high wall, had bomb-proof doors, bullet-proof windows, and grates covering almost all the windows. This definitely isn’t the luxurious mansion I was imagining in Ann Patchett’s novel – although it is still palatial.

While I don’t know anything a lot about MRTA and their demands, we don’t really know much about the demands of the rebels in Ann Patchett’s novel either. I don’t think it really matters for the enjoyment of the book, as it’s not meant to be a political thriller. However, if you’re interested, I’ve included some additional reading below:


A Playlist for Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto – Opera 101

bel canto

Bel Canto bel ˈkäntō,ˈkan-/  (noun): a lyrical style of operatic singing using a full rich broad tone and smooth phrasing.

I recently finished reading Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto at the recommendation of my sister. It’s set in an unnamed country in South America and is about a birthday party gone horribly wrong. As the title suggests, the book revolves around an opera singer, which got me to thinking about how little I know about opera…

opera ranges.jpg

Courtesy of Opera for Dummies

A Brief History of Opera: Opera is Italian for “work” – both the act of labor and the final product. Western Opera started in Italy at the end of the 16th century. The wealthy artists of the Florence Renaissance (known as the Florentine Camerata) were searching for a way to revive and elevate traditional Greek dramas. Their solution was to heighten it by setting it to melodies to enhance the text. Dafne by Jacopo Peri is often referred to as the first acknowledged opera. In the beginning, these operas were commissioned by European royalty as entertainment for their court. However, by the mid 17th century, opera had spread outside of Italy, reaching France and Germany. The idea of “opera season” originated in 1637 and tickets began being sold to the public.

There are many “genres” of opera: most notably, “opera seria” (a more traditional and serious opera, such as Mozart’s Apollo et Hyacinthus) and “opera buffa” (a comedic opera, such as Rossini’s The Barber of Seville). Opera seria were generally about nobility and created for the enjoyment royal court. These operas usually have three acts and leaned towards singers with high voices, favoring sopranos and castrati for the main roles. (Yes, a castrato is a fancy term for a eunuch – yowch!). I’ve included a handy chart of vocal ranges on the left for your reference.

On the other hand, opera buffa was a reaction to opera seria and strove to create an opera that was more accessible to the people. It generally has two acts (compared to seria’s three) and consisted of four voices – a soprano or mezzo, a tenor, a baritone, and a “basso buffo,” the comic relief and a specialist in the “patter” – a fast, rhyming, comedic song.

Many of the composers that we associate with classical music also composed operas – including Mozart, Handel, J.S. Bach, and Beethoven, to name a few. These operas are performed in their original language, and if you go see a live opera, there will be subtitles projected either over the stage or in front of your seat (you can often even pick your own language!)

In honor of this book, I’ve put together a small playlist of what I have been told are great operas and arias to dive into:


  1. Mimi, La Boheme, Puccini
  2. Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Rossini
  3. Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart
  4. O Sole Mio, Caruso
  5. Madama Butterfly, Puccini
  6. Israel in Egypt, Handel
  7. Don Giovanni, Mozart
  8. Au Fond Du Temple Saint, Bizet
  9. The Flower Duet, Charlotte Church

Click here to launch Bel Canto – Opera 101: A Playlist


Additional Resources: