Bel Canto opens with a birthday party at the Vice President’s mansion in an unnamed South American country. The party is in honour of Mr Hosokawa, CEO of a large Japanese corporation. He is passionate about opera, and believes Roxane Coss to be the greatest soprano alive. The government has arranged this party, and paid for an exclusive performance by Roxane Coss, in an attempt to persuade him to invest in their country. As the performance ends, every guest stands entranced by the beauty of Roxane’s voice. Suddenly the lights go out. Terrorists storm the mansion in a carefully planned operation to kidnap the President. Unfortunately for them, he has decided to stay at home in order to watch his favourite soap opera. The terrorists find themselves with hundreds of hostages and no plan B. Within minutes, sirens outside confirm that everyone is trapped.
The first night of the hostage siege passes quietly. Next day Joachim Messner, a vacationing Red Cross official, knocks on the door. He will be the negotiator and liaison between the terrorists and the government, carrying lists of demands from one side to the other. He persuades the terrorists to release the bulk of their hostages; the women, the servants and the sick are freed. Over a hundred people file out of the front door. There is one exception: Roxane Coss will not be released.
Sixty people remain in the house – 14 terrorists, 44 powerful and important men, one internationally famous opera singer and one Japanese translator. Days turn into weeks. Roxane sings every morning, keeping her voice trained and her captive audience enraptured. The conditions under which the hostages are held become increasingly relaxed. The terrorists did not come here to kill anyone. Apart from the three generals, they are teenagers. One is just 14, and two are young girls.
The hostages start to form friendships with one another and with the terrorists. Roxane and Mr Hosokawa, with no common language, fall slowly in love. Mr Hosokawa’s talented translator, Gen, is co-opted into service by just about everyone. He speaks a multitude of languages, and finds himself translating negotiations on behalf of the generals, typing up letters of demand, and bridging the language gap between Roxane and her many admirers. Carmen, a young terrorist, secretly asks Gen to teach her to read and write. They meet every night, and against all the odds they too fall in love.
Life continues in a strange limbo as the siege stretches into months. Hostage and terrorist alike start to believe that it might be possible to live happily like this for ever. Then one peaceful morning the army bursts into the house and the siege is terminated in a hail of bullets. Every terrorist is ruthlessly gunned down. Mr Hosokawa is killed as he tries to shield Carmen. With a single bullet, in their moment of liberation, Gen and Roxane both lose the loves of their lives. ‘Normal life’ resumes for the remaining captives, but it will never be the same.