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Anna Maria Barry currently lives in London and joined Oxford Brookes as a research student in 2013. Her thesis title is 'Home-grown Heroes: The figure of the British male opera singer in Nineteenth-Century culture'.
I was first attracted to Oxford Brookes when I found out about the OBERTO Opera Research Unit. I knew that I wanted to work on nineteenth-century opera singers, so I got in touch with Dr Alexandra Wilson to discuss my ideas. She was extremely supportive, and when funding became available for a PhD in Opera Studies she suggested that I apply. Luckily I was successful, and joined the department as a PhD student in January 2013.
My background is nineteenth-century literature and art history. I have a BA in English Literature from Roehampton University and an MA in Victorian Literature, Art and Culture from Royal Holloway, University of London. After my MA, I spent a few years working for children’s charity Barnardo’s, where I was based in the fundraising department. I knew I wanted to get back to academia, though, so applied for a PhD as soon as the opportunity arose!
I didn’t find it too difficult to get back into the research environment. I found the support and resources offered by Brookes to be excellent. Particularly useful was a library induction, which helped me get to grips with the historical databases that have become central to my research. I’ve also really enjoyed being involved with OBERTO – I act as Web Manager for the department, managing a blog and website which I set up. OBERTO also hosts an exciting range of events, including talks from operatic professionals, reading groups, lectures and an annual conference. These have all been really inspiring and motivating. I have also been involved with graduate reading groups in the Humanities department, where my second supervisor is based. I especially enjoy hearing about the fascinating work that other PhD students are doing at Brookes.
You might be surprised to learn that, during the nineteenth century, opera singers were major celebrities; the equivalent of film stars or rock stars today. However, despite this, they have been almost completely forgotten – perhaps because their careers predated recording technology. Although scholars have produced much work examining female opera singers of the nineteenth-century, male opera singers have been almost completely overlooked. This is where my research comes in. I argue that male opera singers were key cultural figures of the period, who collaborated with literary giants such as Byron and Dickens and moved in influential circles. I am interested in how singers interacted with the celebrity culture of the period, especially through autobiography, portraiture and the press. I also explore fictional representations of male opera singers in a wide range of nineteenth-century literature. I am especially interested in opera singers who were British. In the nineteenth century many felt that opera was feminine and dangerously foreign, so it became crucial for these British singers to find ways in which to emphasise their Britishness and masculinity in order to gain acceptance. They did this in really interesting ways. For example, they associated themselves with the navy, often appearing on stage as sailors and celebrating British naval heroes and victories through their music. In this way they came to be seen as patriots, instead of effeminate singers. Although I am based in the Music department, I consider myself to be a cultural historian rather than a musicologist. I do not study ‘the music’, but am instead interested in singers and their cultural contexts. I have drawn on a wide range of archival sources over the course of my research. I have found many collections of letters and diaries belonging to singers, which have been absolutely fascinating to work with. I was also lucky enough to receive funding for a trip to archives in New York and Washington DC last year. There I found many sources that have informed a chapter I am writing about ‘opera singers on the road’. Reading about the adventures of these nineteenth-century singers is incredible. Personal letters really make me feel a connection with these men; I have found some extremely moving examples. Nobody else has worked on these male opera singers before, so I am the first one to be looking at all of these fantastic sources. Many of these men have been so forgotten that their graves have been neglected or even lost. I am currently working to track some of these down, and only have one left to locate. I am really keen to share my research with as wide an audience as possible, as I believe the stories of these amazing men and their achievements deserve to be known.
The thing I have found hardest about being a research student is spending so much time working from home. I live in London, so don’t spend too much time at Brookes. Instead, I use the British Library and resources in London. It can be a bit isolating sometimes, especially when reading and writing for days on end, but I have found that Twitter really helps with this. It’s great to be in touch with a large community of other young academics who are in the same situation. We share our problems and motivate each other. A good example of this is the hashtag #WritingPact. This is where everyone Tweets about a piece of writing they aim to get done that day, and then keep each other updated with their progress – for me, it really seems to help! I have also made some excellent connections and friends through Twitter.
I also think it’s important to have time away from my research, so I like to take my mind off of it all at regular intervals. It really helps to go back to a piece of writing with fresh eyes. I have also found conferences extremely motivating – hearing about the exciting work that others are doing makes me want to work harder to get my own work out there. Although speaking at conferences can be pretty scary, it always gives me a big boost to get positive feedback.
I found a workshop on publishing especially helpful – this made me think about some of the issues that publishing my work might present, and provided me with a better understanding of ‘open access’.
I plan to apply for postdoctoral positions in order to pursue my next project. This will concern theatrical travel writing of the nineteenth-century, an unexplored topic that has come to my attention over the course of my PhD research. Aside from this, I plan to keep writing and pursuing work as a freelance historian. I have already had some articles published; I wrote a five-page guide to tracing nineteenth-century performers for Who Do You Think You Are? Magazine last year, and have further articles in the pipeline. I plan to publish my PhD research as articles, and would ultimately like to write books based upon my research for the popular history market.