Saturday, September 08, 2007

Bel Canto

I'm sure "Nessun Dorma", "Che Gelida Manina" and other arias were played full blast in many a home this week upon the news of the passing of the King of the High C's, Luciano Pavarotti.

Like many folks, my first introduction to opera was through Bugs Bunny ("Kill da wabbit!"). But later I had an opera epiphany when I saw my first opera, La Bohème, November 18, 1986 at the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) [above left]. A friend and I were backpacking through Europe after university. We joined the young people camped outside the Opera house for standing room tickets (20 schillings, about $2 Cdn). We met a fellow Canadian in line, a Montrealer living in Vienna, going to school to become an orchestra conductor. He became our guide to Boheme and opera, explaining the plot, telling us what to listen for, describing why this Franco Zeffirelli production was so good and who the singers were. And then the performance - a revelation! A light bulb crackled to life in my head as (manly) tears rolled down my cheeks.

Back in Canada I bought the classic 1973 recording of La Bohème, which stars Pavarotti as Rodolfo and Mirella Freni as Mimi, conducted by Herbert von Karajan. In the mists of time since them, I have remembered that it was Luciano Pavarotti who played Rodolpho that night in Wien. Alas, checking my dusty trip souvenirs this week I found the program and see Rodolpho was played by somebody named Alberto Cupido (not a bad name for an opera singer mind you!). No matter - it is Pavarotti on those cassettes that I have enjoyed all these years!

Pavarotti's fabulous voice plus his rock star celebrity and sense of showmanship pulled many others into opera over the years. But for a superb look at the appreciation of opera by true aficionados, you need to read the novel Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. This is one of my go-to, can't-miss readers' advisory suggestions at the Library. I've never had anyone return to say "I didn't like it." An interesting novel about opera? Absolutely. There's also kidnapping, romance, politics and stunning writing throughout. Plus it is based loosely on a real event, the 1996 Peruvian hostage crisis.

A birthday party is held at the mansion of the vice-president of a small South American country for Mr. Hosokawa, the head of a Japanese electronics manufacturer, in hopes of convincing him to set up shop in the country. The bait is a private performance by the world's leading soprano, Roxanne Cross, as Mr. Hosokawa is an opera fanatic. But terrorists break into the mansion during the party, hoping to kidnap the country's president. They soon find out that the president, not an opera fan, has skipped the party. And so a standoff begins, with 57 international guests, 18 terrorists and 1 opera singer learning to live together.

Sometimes implausible but always intriguing, Bel Canto is the very definition of a "good read". Try it with some Puccini and the King of the High C's on in the background.

[**Robert Everett-Green's appreciation in the Globe here. A gathering of obits in Arts & Letters Daily here]


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