The setting is an unspecified country in South America.
Most of the book takes place in the Vice President's house. The house has two floors. On the first floor is the living room, which is a large space where the hostages gathered for the party. The room was decorated with all the most important artwork and was cleaned to the best of its ability because they were trying to convince Mr. Hosokawa and the other businessmen to invest in their country. Also on the first floor is the dining room, the kitchen, and the china closet where Gen and Carmen meet nightly. The first floor also contains a guest suite, which is where General Alfredo sleeps.
On the second floor is a variety of rooms. In a hallway near the kitchen is a narrow and twisting staircase that leads to the servants' quarters, which contains a door to the nursery. The nursery opens up to the second floor, and at the third door past the bathroom is Roxane's room. Mr. Hosokawa takes this path to see Roxane at night and Carmen takes the route in reverse to meet Gen.
Surrounding the house is a garden with a ten-foot wall. There are two known ways to enter the garden. One is through the kitchen and onto the back porch while the other is through the front door and beyond a stone walkway. The garden was prepared for the party and contained many beautiful plants. However, while the crisis was going on, no one has been able to tend to the garden. By the time the hostages were allowed to enter the garden, the grass was high enough to brush against the people's calves. The garden contains many plants, including jasmine vines and evening lilies. In the garden there is a curve in the wall that makes a pocket of grass and slender trees. It is impossible to see this spot from the house, and it is here that Gen and Carmen make love for the first time.
Opera is often used in the story to draw the characters together. Roxane, one of the main characters, is a world famous opera singer. Ann Patchett has stated that the character of Roxanne was modeled on Karol Bennett, an acquaintance of hers who was an opera singer. However, since she was not familiar with Karol Bennett's voice, she listened to recordings by the famous American soprano Renée Fleming and imagined Roxane Coss as possessing Fleming's voice. During the terrorists and hostages' time in the house, they are forced to think and reflect, and the thing they most reflect on is Roxane's music. Her music brings the terrorists and hostages together as one people to admire her voice. Even the name of the novel suggests opera, as the name "Bel Canto" is an operatic term meaning "beautiful singing." The term has come to refer to a particular type of Italian opera, popular in the early nineteenth century. The style is known for its lyricism and vocal virtuosity, and is best represented by the works of Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini.
Before the characters entered the house they were individuals that did not know much about each other. For example, Kato was an excellent piano player, but none of his co-workers knew that he played that instrument. By the end of the novel, the hostages were friends and even lovers. For example, Roxane and Mr. Hosokawa first met in the house, but by the end of the novel, they were lovers.
The hostages and terrorists also develop a sense of community among each other. At the beginning of the novel, the hostages lived in fear of the terrorists  while the terrorists were only concerned with getting the President and leaving the house. By the end of the novel, the hostages and terrorists are connected with each other. Gen and Carmen develop sexual relations, Cesar becomes Roxane's opera student and Ishmael pictures himself as the Vice-President's son. The hostages and terrorists learn to create a community within the house and live together as a community.