On Monday afternoon, I went to this novel opera, Green Aria: A Scent Opera, at the Guggenheim. It was their last Works & Process program of the season. Going in, I had no idea what to expect, knowing only that there was no singing, only scents (by Christophe Laudamiel) and music (by Valgeir Sigurdsson and that fabulously crazy Nico Muhly) and that the opera’s characters were various smells. It was really so interesting and I wish they would expand it (this one is only half an hour long) and show it in more venues so that more people could see it.
The basic story (by Stewart Matthew) is: nature is corrupted by industrialism and technology must find a way to save it, to create new fresh air. The five basic elements (Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Base Metal) are the core characters, with other characters named things like Funky Green Impostor, Green Metal, Evangelical Green, Screaming Green, Shimmering Green, Chaos, Absolute Zero, etc. Here’s a full list of the Dramatis Personae from the back of the little Playbill they made:
In the auditorium they set up little tubes (which looked like microphones) at each seat. You could adjust your tube, but they blasted in enough scented air that you really didn’t need to be sitting too close to it. They told us to breathe normally, not to sniff like a police dog (which of course most of us were inclined to do anyway). The tubes at each seat were necessary, Laudamiel told us, because if scented air was just blown into the auditorium in whole, it could take up to 50 seconds for the scents to spread to everyone. It would be impossible then to coordinate the scents with the music, or for everyone to have the same experience at the same time.
The scents were “stored” in this gigantic compression tank parked outside of the Guggenheim.
I thought since I have chronic sinus issues and a deviated septum and all, I might not get the same effect as everyone else, but it wasn’t a problem for me at all. Laudamiel’s scents (he’s worked as a perfumer for Ralph Lauren and other designers) were all very strong. They were mainly earthy because of the nature of the opera: Earth smelled like freshly mowed grass, Green Aria was like a dewy field, Evangelical Green was like grass mixed with sweet perfume, Shimmering Green yet sweeter. The sweetness and the grassiness didn’t always mix well, I think intentionally — Evangelical and Shimmering Greens were meant to be overly preachy, a surfeit, an excess, not authentic.
And you’d think the way people perceive smell would be subjective, but I think everyone pretty much despised / was horrified by Funky Green Impostor, who smelled very gassy, very foul, like gas combined with rotten eggs. Others I disliked were Fire, who smelled like 9/11 to me and Shiny Steel, who smelled very metallic but with a sweetness that just didn’t mix right.
By far my favorite somehow (besides simple Earth, and Green Aria) was Chaos. Chaos, according to the Playbill, was supposed to create “strange greens” which would make Chaos seem bad. But Chaos was not the least bit foul-smelling to me! To me Chaos smelled like tropical fruit punch, or bubble gum. It was the only non-earthy scent. The Playbills they gave us had various sample scents, but Chaos was not there! I want my Chaos!
I’d said earlier that Muhly was the ideal composer for scent, but now that I’m remembing the whole opera, I’m realizing that that music, those sounds, were a large part of how I interpreted the scents. You knew when Funky Green Impostor was on his way by the sounding of harsh notes — at first faint, like he was just approaching — and then you knew when you’d be hit with some very threatening whiffs by the swelling of those chords. And you also knew when sweet, sunshine-y scents would be on their way when the music became mellifluous and Mozart-like. There’d be a fight, you’d smell the characters duking it out, the scents all mixed but at various points one or another rising above the rest — stinky, then perfume-like, then the freshly mowed grass, more sweet surfeit, etc. — and you knew when good had triumphed when it sounded like the end of a Tchaikovsky ballet followed by the dewy fields. I honestly never realized how strong my auditory senses were, what powerful effect sound could have, until I heard Muhly’s work.
Read Anthony Tommasini’s NYTimes review for far better descriptions of the music than I can provide
This was a fascinating experience, what I live in NY for.