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Meet the Grantee: Feng-Shu Lee

Optical illusions and special sound effects in (not only) Wagner’s operas

Traveling to examine original manuscripts, artworks and optical instruments related to her research in historical musicology is crucial to the work of our grantee Dr Feng-Shu Lee from Taiwan. Thanks to a Short Term Grant, she had the opportunity to come to Bayreuth to collaborate with her host Prof. Anno Mungen and explore the items preserved in the National Wagner Archives.

What are the foci of your joint research funded by the Short Term Grant?

Feng-Shu Lee: I combine my findings in my research at the National Wagner Archive (Wahnfried) with my study of 19th-century optical- and theatre technology. Professor Anno Mungen's publications in the 2000s focused on how theatrical device such as the diorama was incorporated in 19th-century theatre and operas. During my colloquium talk (in April, 2022) under this grant, I interpreted Wagner's Der fliegende Hollaender and Goetterdaemmerung along the line of optical technology, showing how Wagner turned optical illusion to a crucial device in his plot construction and an inspiration for special sound effects. Prof. Mungen directed me to draw these findings closer to the practice and traditions of theatre in Wagner's time, suggesting that it would contribute further to the originality of my findings. His feedback led me to delve deeper into the treatises in theatre and drama in the 19th century, sources that enrich the bibliography of a book that I am currently writing. His criticism also helped me re-examine my arguments in an article on Wagner and the magic lantern, which I was working on during my grant period in Bayreuth and which has been accepted by the journal Music in Art 47/1-2 (2022).

In what way is your work interdisciplinary, and what does interdisciplinarity mean to you in academic work and life?

FL: My research in historical musicology focuses on the issue of how optical illusion contributes to a new understanding of the dramatic and musical constructions of 19th-century operas by composers such as J. Offenbach, R. Wagner, and R. Strauss. As a musical genre, the opera is in and of itself a product made possible through multimedia. I consider optical illusion both in a technological sense and something that Romantic composers appropriated, which in turn suggests their participation in and response to the popular culture and optical science of the time. Getting to know the mechanism of optical instrument such as the magic lantern, which played a decisive role in my research, requires that I place the visual aspect of the opera on equal footing with the music. This in turn helped me broaden up my perspective on the extra-musical aspects of the opera, learning to think from the perspective of its production and considering a link between art music and popular culture in 19th-century European culture in more practical terms.

What is in your opinion the future of your field, and in what way can research on Historical Musicology contribute to meeting the urgent challenges of our time?

FL: Connecting music with visual studies, the focus of my current project, is an ongoing trend that started around the 2000s. That historical musicologists open up to in-depth discussion of optical technology presents a promising future for this field, as recognizing that changing ways of look, something that art historians (most notably Jonathan Crary) proposed much earlier, is read as an influential and interdisciplinary cultural phenomenon that offered new understanding of 19th-century European culture, including its music. However, the tendency of using published version of scores and libretti in the music's end, even when the manuscripts of the works in question are available, suggests the old habit in historical musicology that falls for the quasi-myth of "Die Fassung letzter Hand." Even though using manuscripts as one way to offer different readings of a work has by now been out of fashion in this field, I believe that this approach can enrich the new directions and trendy topics going on in this field still.

What does international research mobility mean to you?

FL: It is tremendously crucial to me. The restrictions to travel internationally in 2019-2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic put a halt on my current project, which relies much on the study of unpublished materials, especially manuscripts, artworks, and optical instruments, which were preserved in various archives and museums in Europe and north America. Possibly in response to the various difficulties caused by the pandemic, including the travel ban on international scholars, the National Wagner Archive has digitized more and more of its collection, which offered a good alternative to researchers worldwide, even though it would be necessary still to examine the originals in the end.

How did the current challenges influence your cooperation?

FL: That my current research involves in-depth studies in optical technology, sensory perception, and material culture has prompted me to seek more actively in networking and collaboration with scholars outside my field and, naturally, my department (of music) in my home institution. That the needed reference sources and research materials are often less easy to acquire through online purchase also means the need to reach out for more funding to travel internationally.

The Grantee

Dr Feng-Shu Lee is Assistant Professor of Historical Musicology at the National Yang Ming Chiao Tung University in Hsinchu, Taiwan.

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