Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

The operatic challenge of adapting Bel Canto

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On Sunday, my wife and I attended a panel discussion featuring composer Jimmy Lopez and playwright Nilo Cruz, the team faced with the challenging task of adapting Ann Patchett’s beloved novel Bel Canto for the Chicago Lyric Opera. At first glance, Patchett’s book seems like an obvious candidate for adaptation: it’s a romantic, often melodramatic story of a hostage crisis in an unnamed South American capital, with captives and guards becoming reluctant companions, friends, and even lovers, all centered on the figure of a beautiful lyric soprano. Lopez and Cruz come across as smart guys who seem more than capable of delivering on the promise of the project, although we won’t see the results of their work for a while—their first workshop is scheduled to take place sometime in the first half of 2014. But although I’m looking forward to being in the audience when it premieres, I was also amused by the tone of the panel’s moderator, dramaturge Colin Ure, who voiced a few dry doubts about whether this work was “particularly suitable for opera.”

I was a little skeptical as well. As it happened, I just finished reading Bel Canto last week, and although I liked it a lot, I had a number of similar reservations. It’s a well-crafted, heartfelt novel with much to recommend it—Patchett takes a wonderful premise and realizes it beautifully. The story is smartly paced without being overly plotted, and much of it is genuinely romantic and moving. What’s most impressive is that Patchett makes it look so easy: even as the story turns on tiny shifts in relationships between characters, and spans a period of several months without much in the way of action or artificial suspense, the pages still fly by. It’s tempting to credit this mostly to the material, which is one of those great ideas that most novelists only dream of finding. (Although it’s based on a real incident, the musical angle, which is a masterstroke, is the author’s invention.) But the novel could have degenerated into an empty thriller or a syrupy romance if Patchett hadn’t been able to execute it so expertly.

A writer reveals more about herself in her lapses than her strengths, however, and in Bel Canto, as in many books, they come from the same place. Patchett clearly loves her characters, and while this affection goes a long way toward drawing in the reader as well, it occasionally blinds the author to the weaknesses of her own story. Roxane Coss, the singer ostensibly at the heart of the novel, is an effective symbol, but as Ure pointed out at the panel, she isn’t especially interesting as a character. Indeed, she’s close to a perfect example of a Mary Sue: beautiful, supernaturally talented, capable of solving everyone’s problems, and so alluring that everyone falls in love with her. Patchett’s reluctance to penetrate Roxane’s inner life is especially frustrating given the care with which she develops the other players, notably Gen, the Japanese translator who enters into an idyllic romance with a young woman among the guerrillas. And the epilogue, which Ure rightly called “ridiculous,” pairs off two characters in a happy ending that reads as if Patchett is writing fanfic for her own novel.

These are all flaws that can be addressed, in an adaptation, with the right kind of detachment, and the team assembled for the opera of Bel Canto seems more than capable of this kind of objectivity. Cruz described himself as an exile who enters a new world every time he starts a play, and notes that he didn’t reread the novel before setting out to write his libretto, trusting instead on his outline, impressions, and memories. The opera will diverge from the book in a number of important and, I think, promising ways, cutting the epilogue entirely and pushing back one of the most dramatic scenes—the release of the female hostages—to the end of the first act. Whether the result will be worth it is something we won’t find out for another couple of years. But so far, the signs are encouraging. Bel Canto, the novel, is a textbook case of how an author’s closeness to her own work can prevent her from making the hard, correct choices, and if the creative team behind this opera can keep what makes this novel so special while refining its weaker elements, the result could be something to celebrate.

Written by nevalalee

November 7, 2012 at 9:54 am

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