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The Smell of Music

A new opera in which the nose plays as big a role as the ears.


Stewart Matthew and Christophe Laudamiel  

In the arts, smell is the unloved sense. Whether your point of reference is Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk or John Waters’s scratch-and-sniff Odorama, your nose will be ignored or disappointed: Even those artists who say they want to embrace all the senses come up short with scent. So Green Aria, a ScentOpera, which makes its debut on May 31 and June 1 at the Guggenheim, has an especially audacious air to it. This is an experimental performance piece in which fragrance takes center stage.

It unfolds in the dark. Precisely timed to a score of about fifteen minutes, two dozen fragrances will be pumped out of a “scent organ” and into “scent microphones” attached to 148 seats in the museum’s theater. The idea is to tell a story using a sequence of smells in conjunction with wordless music, composed by Nico Muhly and Björk collaborator Valgeir Sigurdsson. (A prologue of about the same length as the opera will provide a rudimentary synopsis, orienting the audience—like blindmen around an elephant—to elucidate a narrative by means of these unaccustomed cues.)

The guiding force behind Green Aria is Stewart Matthew, an American who lives in London. Back in the nineties, he was working on Wall Street in investment banking when a tangential role in film financing led him to wonder why the narrative performance arts—movies, theater, music, dance—were still so conventionally fixated on the eyes and ears. “There’s a whole world out there,” says Matthew. “People are interested in touch and smell, but the arts deal mainly with the audiovisual.”

In 2004, he moved out of finance and set up a research-and-development company, SenseLab, to investigate the artistic possibilities within neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Through that work, he met a perfume designer, Christophe Laudamiel, and with him established a “scent media” company, Aeosphere, to explore commercial and artistic uses of fragrance as a means of communication. Matthew’s first artistic proposal was an opera that involves all the senses, including taste and smell. “But there was too much to handle,” he admits. “I decided it would be best to break out an element, which is part of the opera I was doing, to be just the ScentOpera.

The theme of Green Aria is the struggle between man and nature. Some of the scents will evoke the outdoors: “green” smells, for example, or (less obviously) the odor of water, which to the casual nose is odorless. Some will be what their designers call abstract: among them, “Industrial” and “Absolute Zero.” “It is very rare that a scent has only one facet—only wood, only green,” says Laudamiel, a modishly dressed master perfumer with a close-cropped mohawk, a soul patch, and an academic background in chemistry. “It is not like primary colors. Something smells always of several things. To make water, it’s a feeling of freshness that you want. You have a scent like anise that is cold, fresh, you could even say watery. You have to emphasize the watery effect. If you want to emphasize white, you put a little black dot in it. So if you put a little woody note in something already watery, it will make it even more watery.” Then you have to hide the unwanted notes—“you mask the very well-known scent of anise”—and control the dosage—“to have the dewy effect stop before it becomes green like grass in the prairie.”

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