Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Green Aria - A Scent Opera: Bravo!

I inhaled something remarkable the other night: a scent opera.

Not since Hans Laube and Mike Todd, Jr. brought Smell-O-Vision to the Warner Theater in January, 1960, has Manhattan seen—or smelled—anything like it. A capacity crowd of about 150 people filled the Peter B. Lewis Theater at the Guggenheim Museum on Monday evening for the fifth and final performance of Green Aria. The audience tended toward the young and artsy; it was also stylish: one fellow wore a cape, another a tuxedo, and there were a few women in glamorous dresses. There were also enough gray heads present to confirm that this was, indeed, Serious Opera (just like the Met!).

The event began with the inevitable Panel Discussion, consisting of Stewart Matthew, the major domo of the production. It was his idea to create a sound-and-scent performance piece and over five long years he assembled the team that made it happen. With his shaved head and heavy black glasses, Matthew resembles Letterman’s band leader, Paul Shaffer. Also on stage were the composers—Nico Muhley, who scored The Reader, and Valgeir Sigurdsson. The young, giggling Muhley looks like Brendan Fraser, while the quiet Sigurdsson looks exactly like a shaggy, Icelandic, avant garde composer from central casting. The final “discussant” was the perfumer Christophe Laudamiel, sporting a pair of sparkly purple sneakers which balanced the more subdued tones currently on display in his mohawk.

We learned from the panel that Matthew’s “libretto” consisted of a timing grid listing the various smells and their odor descriptions. Muhley and Sigurdsson composed to this grid after smelling the actual samples created by Laudamiel. In some cases, creating a musical signature for a given scent was easy; in others, the composers struggled to find the right sound.

The technology for the evening was classic Smell-O-Vision: scented airstreams delivered via tubes to each seat in the house. The scents emerged from a flexible metal gooseneck, which you could adjust to suit: some people went with a full-face blast, others adopted a more demure cross-nostril approach. Laudamiel, who initially assessed his creations sitting a couple of feet from the nozzle of a prototype “odor organ,” was surprised at how different they smelled when tested under more realistic conditions. After traveling through many feet of tubing the components emerged from the nozzle out of phase. Laudamiel altered the ingredients and their proportions to achieve a coherent, synchronous delivery that smelled as intended.

The actual performance began with dimmed lights and an introduction of the eighteen odor “characters,” whose names were projected on a screen as we experienced their sound-and-scent signatures. With names like Absolute Zero, Meretricious Green, and Shiny Steel, the characters were concepts more than persons. The smells were strange and abstract—deliberately so. Laudamiel wanted the audience to focus on the interplay of scent and sound, and not get side-tracked with guessing the smells or puzzling out their mental associations. Most odors were intellectualized variants of perfumery’s “green”. Meretricious Green resembled tobacco leaf wrapper; Funky Green Imposter had an edamame note; another (I forget which) had the ersatz fruitiness of a Jolly Rancher.

After this prelude the house lights were doused, leaving the audience to their ears and noses for the next twenty minutes. Dubbed a “Scent Opera in Four Movements” (I know, I know, operas have scenes and acts, not movements), the libretto was even more conceptual than the scents. In the second movement, for example, 
Earthly materials are forged to give rise to Base Metal which is soon modernized into flamboyance that hardens in Shiny Steel.
And so on. The narrative was less a story than an excuse for smells to reappear in various sequences and combinations. And in any case, it was impossible to tell when one movement left off and the next began.

The experience, however, was totally compelling. The smells continuously evolved from the nozzle at an easy pace—smelling them took no effort, no special sniffing or hyperventilating. You sat and listened and the smells happened, one after another. Gradually you began to connect each one with its leitmotif—metallic piano notes cued the arrival of Shiny Steel, for example. Soon the characters interacted, and the score and the scents became correspondingly complex.

Some of the smells were off-putting—I saw a few heads in the audience snap back on delivery of one particularly unpleasant vinyl note. (Weirdly, five minutes into the piece my stomach began to growl, even though I’d had dinner a couple of hours earlier. I wasn’t the only one to experience this.)

As Laudamiel promised, none of the scents were familiar—or comforting for that matter. Their abstractness gave the performance a surreal tone—while concentrating on them I began to imagine a lunar landscape illuminated by greenish flourescent bulbs. Still, the sensory connections between odors and musical themes were easily perceived. In retrospect, familiar scents would have made for a different and distracting experience, a mental treasure hunt instead of pure synaesthesia. (To my mind, this was the problem with Aldous Huxley’s description of the odor organ concert in Brave New World—the scents in the Herbal Capriccio made no artistic sense.) 

At the conclusion of the piece, on-screen credits rolled as each character made a brief, scented “curtain call.” The audience was smiling and the mood was happy. It’s worth noting that despite a half hour of continuous scent delivery, there was no lingering background scent in the theater—a complete vindication of the Laube/Todd Smell-O-Vision style of technology. (AromaRama, as readers of my book know, was a less successful technology that dispersed scent through a theater’s air conditioning ducts, often leaving a cloud of smell behind.)

Scented theatrical performance has been around for a long time. Eugene Rimmel created a “perfume fountain” for musical numbers in London’s Alhambra theater in the 1860s. Stage directors of the realist school have been using smells on stage since the early 1900s. And people have been experimenting with scented movies since the earliest days of Hollywood. What’s clear from Green Aria is that an elegant scent technology in the hands of truly creative people can deliver an original, and beautiful, sensory performance that enlivens the mind as well as the senses.

P.S. Credit where credit is due: Firmenich (and not IFF, Laudamiel’s former employer), provided the scents. Engineering firm Fläkt Woods created the odor organ scent delivery system.

P.P.S. Kudos also to Thierry Mugler Parfums, the opera’s official sponsor, whose support made the entire production possible.

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