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Sniffing Your Way Through the Opera

Approaching the imposing Guggenheim on 89th Street and 5th Ave elicits a myriad of responses. Is it a staid fortress? Glorified toilet bowl? Gorgeous mammoth of sensual design? However you may feel about one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous designs, one thing is clear- programming inside the museum remains on the edge of contemporary art.

Next month kicks off a new season of Works and Processes, one of the most exciting and interdisciplinary performance series to be found in New York. Produced by Mary Sharp Cronson and billed as “groundbreaking and carefully crafted programs that provide unprecedented access to today's leading performing artists, choreographers, composers, writers, directors, poets, and minds,”
the performances often blur the boundaries between genres, pushing each art form into the avant garde. What makes the evening special, however, is that the performances are paired with an inside look into the conception, development and intentions of the works- with talks or panel discussions given by the artists prior to the piece. Rarely do we get to experience work with the creator’s insight, in a state of the art auditorium and intimate setting. At 285 seats, performances are often sold out.

Such was the case at the world premier of the Scent Opera, an operatic performance in which scents- yes aromatic wafts- performed the libretto.

The “olfactive libretto” was written by Stewart Matthew in collaboration with French perfumer Christophe Laudamiel  New York-based composer Nico Muhly and Icelander Valgeir Siggurdson wrote a score so strange and beautiful it could be easily be performed as a work in itself. Capturing the imaginative whimsy and at times overwhelming visceral power of smell, the music was able to achieve an artfulness and nuance that surpassed the scents.
Each character in the opera was a smell- and the story arc- though seemingly convoluted- involved a cast of characters that were ensconsed in a struggle between nature and modernity.

During one half hour of music, scents that evoked nature tangoed with scents that evoked technology, each scent making its appearance in six second bursts. Earthy, dank and mulchy smells flitted and fought with metallic smells. There were twenty three scents in all. Often, it was too much for my nose and stomach to bear, and small waves of nausea pulsed through my body during particularly climactic moments of the opera.

How did we as the audience receive the smells? Enveloped by darkness, we sat with an interesting technological device- a microphone of sorts- at an adjustable length underneath our noses. Throughout the course of the performance, audience members either brought the scent-emitting microphones closer to their nostrils, or was often my case, pushing the device further away.

The scents came out in bursts, a stream of air with the odor riding in the vapor.

While unsure if I enjoyed the experience on a sensorial level, given the heavy olfactory barrage, I was awed at the innovation of the idea, and thus delighted in the opportunity to hear the creators speak about the work.

Laudamiel, Stewart, Muhly and Siggurdson spoke of the relationship of scent to music, with Laudamiel noting, ‘Perfumery should be the same kind of discipline as music or visual art,’ (The Wall Street Journal). Muhly explained how perfumes are like chords, with a series of notes that are released to varying effect. Matthew discussed the future of scent as an artistic medium, and all shared quirky anecdotes about sending vials back and forth across continents as the libretto’s “characters” came to take shape. Beyond the fascinating look into the evolution of this project enabled by the panel discussion, the creators were available to chat during the elegant reception following the performance.

Tickets for Works and Processes performances are $30, $25 for members and $10 for students.
Please refer to
For the Fall 2009 schedule.