How to Make a Scent Opera

Question: Why and how did you make a smell opera?

Christophe Laudamiel: So the... it’s been a dream in the minds of many people to associate the excitement of sense and olfaction and perfumes with other elements from the entertaining world. And of course as a perfumer, this is something also very exciting and I hope to be able to bring much more of that with other operatic pieces or in the movie industry or any kind of entertainment; the ballet, the museum, et cetera, because there is much, much to do. As much as what has been done so far with music, for instance, in those arenas.

The... for the Scent Opera, there were two challenges. The creative challenge, you had to make fragrances that would be played in a very short period of time, the fragrances have to be compatible with each other, one difference with visual clues, for instance, is that the molecules from the sense of smell are natural, it doesn’t matter, but what you smell lingers in the nose longer than something lingers on your retina.

So when you smell something, the impression that you get depends on what you smelled just before. So in the Scent Opera, where people are smelling things as fast as every six seconds, you had to create smell number two, for instance, depending on what smell number one was, and depending also on what smell number three would be. And then smell number two would be played against later in the opera after smell number 16, so smell number two had to take into account also 16 to be perceived still as smell number two, et cetera So there was this whole gymnastic of things.

Also, people for the Scent Opera, people have smelled around 30 scents within 30 minutes creating 30 scents, it’s a very different task from creating... usually you create one scent to put in one bottle, or one scent to put in one shampoo. Like here it’s like a zoo, if you wish, of 30 animals all of a sudden that you have to manage, that you have to, number one, create and tame and then it’s quite something creatively wise.

The other challenge was the technology, which was blocking the scent clues from the entertaining world until now because you... contamination is number one enemy. You don’t want the cinema to smell like a soup after awhile; you don’t want that after the first performance, you don’t want that everything is contaminated, so we had to have some very special equipment made. And so we went with a biggest ventilation company in the world for that and they custom made something, a scent organ, for us. In fact, I had to work in very close collaboration with them to almost invent every step along the way so that we could play all these scents and recognize them and keep them in a pure form and have several performances, one after the other without problem.

So it was... well it was quite something, but it worked and hopefully now we are going to make many more.

Can you explain how people experienced the opera?

Christophe Laudamiel: So we played it at the theater, at the Guggenheim Museum here in New York, and every seat was equipped with, what we called a “scent microphone,” that was actually the arrival of an individual tube so the seats were not wired, they were tubed individually for every viewer, or sniffer to be able to enjoy the scent opera. And the scent organ we built with Flat Woods and the company, it’s like... how should I say, like Yamaha would build a very good piano, I guess. And then you have Flat Woods building some
very special air managing equipment, very, very precise to handle those scents so that they don’t mix with each other, et cetera.

But the viewers would just sit in their seats and then enjoy the music and the scent coming at them, if you wish. And the challenge was to make sure that people would recognize the scent. It's very unusual right now when you watch a movie, the musical clues, you know them because you've been educated with them. Why when you hear the strings on the violin you know that something bad is going to happen? It's not because you were born with this perception of the music, it's because you've learned it by watching over and over in movies and you associate now that violin kind of clang music with a bad moment.

And now even if you don't see the monster you know the monster is in the room because those violins are starting playing that kind of music. Now people don't have those clues yet in their memory about scents or we had to play the prelude where we describe the scent with the music and with some words, so that they started to make this association quite quickly and thank God the brain is very used at associating an event with a scent.

The brain is even better at doing that than at associating a visual clue with an event. You don't have to repeat as much and so within 15 minutes we gave already a few tips I would say and then we... people attended the opera in the dark and... could really make the association between the scents coming and going and musical clues. The music playing at the same time.

So it was quite an exercise, but we could see because the audience would laugh at the right moment and then they would tell us after, "Oh, yeah. I could really see what was happening, the battle between technology and nature and metal coming in and all that kind of stuff. And then the weirdo passing by and making a chaos and all that."

So people could really make a parallel with what they would have enjoyed in another arena.

Recorded September 9, 2010

Interviewed by Andrew Dermont

"It’s been a dream in the minds of many people to associate the excitement of sense and olfaction and perfumes with other elements from the entertaining world," says Laudamiel. His scent opera attempted to do just that.

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