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Smells like green spirit

Nature volume 459, page 513 (28 May 2009) | Download Citation


Green Aria: A ScentOpera

The Peter B. Lewis Theater, Guggenheim Museum, New York City  31 May and 1 June 2009

Audience members attending Green Aria, which has its world premiere at the Guggenheim Museum in New York this week, can leave their opera glasses at home. The brainchild of director and librettist Stewart Matthew, this aria will be performed in the dark. But while the eyes get a rest, the nose will be hard at work. Green Aria is a scent opera, a performance involving synchronized sounds and smells.

Perfume perfectionist Christophe Laudamiel.

Each of the roughly two dozen characters in this musical tale about humanity's attempt to tame nature will have a distinct odour, transmitted for a few seconds at a time through a 'scent speaker' attached to each auditorium chair. The opera will tap into two perceptual pathways in the brain simultaneously.

“There have been other attempts to introduce smell technology in conjunction with various forms of art and entertainment,” explains Matthew. But it is little used today. In 1960, a system called Smell-O-Vision released timed scents in a cinema to match the scenes unfolding in a film. And a 1981 movie by John Waters, Polyester, prompted audiences to use scratch-and-sniff Odorama cards at particular points in the plot.

In the Guggenheim Museum's theatre, special tubing will connect the scent speakers on the chairs to a customized 'odour organ' jointly developed by Fläkt Woods, a company specializing in air-circulation systems, and Aeosphere, a fragrance media company. Aeosphere is headed by Matthew and fragrance designer Christophe Laudamiel, who created the opera's scents.

Laudamiel holds a master's degree in chemistry and has taught at both Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. He took pains to ensure that the voices in the opera have appropriately matched scents. For example, the fragrance of one character, Crunchy Green, is made up of ingredients that include a leafy-smelling chemical and a rooty scent known as gentian absolute, derived from gentian plants that grow on dormant volcanoes in France.

The unconventional music of the opera — written by composers Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurðsson — does not contain words but consists instead of sung sounds, notes played by orchestra instruments and electronic elements. When the music calls for a chord of voices, the scent speakers, too, release a 'chord' of corresponding odours.

Laudamiel notes that the team had to consider human biology when constructing the piece. Specifically, the succession of sounds and scents needed careful arrangement — a person can quickly become accustomed to one scent, such that it loses its impact if there is no variation. Moreover, “the perception of scent number two is going to depend on scent number one”, he adds.

Stewart doesn't bar the possibility of someday wearing one of the scents developed for Green Aria in public, but explains that they would need fine-tuning. “The intent is to compose the scents for the opera. If there is a potential to apply the scents to the skin, that's a secondary consideration.”

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  1. Roxanne Khamsi is news editor for Nature Medicine in New York.

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