The soprano immortalised, as art imitates art, and imitates life

Few operatic divas become immortalised in novels, but the voice of the great American soprano Renee Fleming is at the heart of the story Bel Canto by US author Ann Patchett. The novel won both the Orange Prize for Fiction and the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and has now been turned into an opera, premiered appropriately enough at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where Fleming is creative consultant.

The story is set in Lima, Peru, during the Japanese embassy hostage crisis of 1996–1997 and follows the friendships and love affairs which result. The most tragic is between American opera singer Roxane Coss and Katsumi Hosokawa, the chairman of a large Japanese company. They communicate through music as they do not share a language.

This is something I recognise – music as a way to cross barriers and borders. A shared experience through which emotions and passion can be delineated perhaps more beautifully than through words.

Indeed, it was Fleming’s voice rather than her actual physical self which informed the character of Roxanne. Patchett admitted that she had not listened to opera before writing the book.

Roxanne’s physical shape and character were based on Karol Bennett, an acquaintance of Patchett’s who was a singer. But it was that unmistakable Fleming voice which took over, the more Patchett listened as she wrote. The description of Roxanne singing Ave Maria is definitive Fleming: “Her voice was so pure, so light, that it opened up the ceiling and carried their petitions directly to God.”

Subsequently, the pair have met at the Met – Patchett has developed a passion for opera – and collaborated on Fleming’s autobiographical book The Inner Voice. Fleming credits Patchett with “supplying the art while I supplied the nuts and bolts”.

I would argue she is being unfair to herself. Fleming’s undoubted musical artistry is present in everything she does including the creation of The Inner Voice. Pablo Picasso said: “The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.” To which I would add, that they are then the genesis of art in ways that are equally as disparate.

But those of us in the audience are not without purpose too. As Patchett writes in Bel Canto: “Some people are born to make great art and others are born to appreciate it. … It is a kind of talent in itself, to be an audience, whether you are the spectator in the gallery or you are listening to the voice of the world’s greatest soprano. Not everyone can be the artist. There have to be those who witness the art, who love and appreciate what they have been privileged to see.”

Witnessing Fleming perform is certainly that. No wonder then that Patchett says Fleming now is Roxanne Coss. “Sometimes,” the author says, “inspiration seems to be retrospective.”

Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation