A common project for American schoolchildren is to reconstruct your family history – what countries your family come from, and subsequently which heritages you can claim – so from my childhood I was aware of the mix of cultures and languages that made up my own DNA. My mother’s family are Hungarian and Romanian, emigrating to the US for obvious reasons around the Second World War. On my father’s side, stories of my Irish great-grandfather sailing to Canada in his fishing boat were told alongside the (probably apocryphal) tales of connections to French aristocracy. While I didn’t grow up bilingual, these stories – and especially the meals over which they were told – established a love for foreign languages and cultures.
I came to Russian studies in a manner straight out of a sentimental novel, when as a teenager I fell in love with Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin, based on Pushkin’s great novel in verse. Having checked out the Pushkin from my local library, I was frustrated by the translator’s note, which basically apologised for the loss of Pushkin’s untranslatable poetic voice, and I vowed to read it in the original. Around the same time, I developed an interest in opera and decided to pursue a career as a professional singer. I realised most of the way through my undergraduate studies, however, that what really interested me was less performing itself, more researching the history of the roles and composers I sang, and especially learning their languages. I like to say I owe my Italian to Handel and Rossini, and my German to Schumann and Brahms. While studying opera and polishing my Russian on the side, I was fortunate to live in Montreal, where my schoolgirl French became far more fluent (though my French grandfather deplores the state of my accent).
As part of Creative Multilingualism, my DPhil research looks at the development of Russian opera libretti from the late eighteenth century, with a particular focus on genre and poetic development. It’s strange to think that a chance encounter with Tchaikovsky on a Sunday afternoon has now become my life’s work, but I find it rather poetic that my separate interests in opera and Russian literature have brought me around full circle. I think Tchaikovsky and Pushkin would laugh to know a stubborn American determined to learn their language ended up spending her days studying their respective arts. It will be wonderful to write my chapter on the opera that started it all.