07/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Scent of an Opera

An article in the on-line edition of Gramophone dated June 4, 2009 has brought us news of Green Aria, a work of musical art. We are advised that the piece was composed by Nico Muhly and Valgeir Sigurdsson to a libretto (if that's the right word) by Stewart Matthew.

According to Robert Hilferty of Gramophone, the performance begins with "projected text introducing the five elements" which are reported to be Earth, Air, Fire, Water and Base Metal. Base Metal? The projected text also introduces the eighteen characters in this thirty minute work, "with names like Evangelical Green and Funky Green Imposter." Hilferty continues by noting that once the preliminaries are out of the way, the libretto deals with an issue arising when "Technology joins forces with Nature. Evangelical Green preaches the Gospel of Modernism forging a man-made world where scents sound, touch and pour..."

Those of us used to mocking the libretti of such operas as Il Trovatore, La Gioconda and The Pearl Fishers needed to stop to catch our breath after reading that little plot description. I am still trying to work my way through the particulars of how Funky Green Imposter differs from, say, Dick Cheney. The whole thing is odious.

Well, not exactly odious. Odiferous. You see, Green Aria is a "scent opera." Parfumier Christophe Laudamiel (possessor of a really cool looking Mohawk) crafted twenty three aromas "which function as characters" for this production. The odors, we are advised, are controlled by a "scent organ" and sprayed through special "scent microphones" attached to the seats of the Peter B. Lewis Theater in the Guggenheim Museum, New York.

Leave to one side the question of how, in a city firmly seized by the notion that everything and anything must be accessible to everyone and anyone, the producers could have presented something so flatly discriminatory to those sadly affected by multiple chemical sensitivities or odor allergies. One can only hope that EMTs were stationed just outside the doors. The issue is whether this high-tech version of Smell-o-Vision is opera (it ain't, and it is not even close). The subsidiary issue is why anyone possessed of a modicum of sense would voluntarily subject himself or herself to this thirty minute olfactory assault.

Mr. Hilferty tells us that this work is devoid of voices and arias, but he helpfully notes "There may have been an Icelandic countertenor's voice singing as part of a texture at some point, but no text whatsoever." I am unaware of anything unique about the voice of an Icelandic countertenor as opposed to, say, a Swedish countertenor, but let it pass. What I gathered from the Gramophone piece is that this was a half hour of New Age-ish music accompanied by twenty-three smells, twenty four if you count the guy sitting next to you. A similar experience could be had by walking down the corridor of any apartment house in New York City with an I-Pod's ear buds firmly in place.

Mr. Hilferty suggests that Green Aria "is certainly curious and interesting, and ... points out both the power and limitations of the sense of smell as harnessed for an artwork." I get the limitations part, but the "power" escapes me. He unhelpfully concludes by stating "It might be interesting to have Laudamiel actually create odours for all the characters of The Ring, even creating duets and choruses. I'd love to smell Ride of the Valkyries."

Now let's see, the Valkyries are the daughters of Wotan out of Erda, riding mighty steeds at the beginning of Act Three of Die Walkure, charged with fetching the bodies of dead warriors such as Sintolt the Hegeling and Wittig the Irming from the field of battle and bringing them to Valhalla. So we'd need the smell of their horses, the smell of dead warriors, and the piquant aroma of the arduously exercised Valkyries themselves. Thus, for the cost of about $250.00 per ticket one can have the aromatic experience of the infield at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day or of the county morgue.

Until such time as Peter Gelb can figure out how to recreate the effect on DVD, The Met will never touch it.