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.

Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
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