Tibetan Opera is a fascinating combination of songs, dances, chants, acrobatics, comedy and drama. Most of the plots are derived from Buddhist teachings and Tibetan history, and as such they emphasise the cause/effect relationship and victory of good over evil. Operas usually begin with a Buddhist prayer ceremony, a Ngonpa dance - the purification of the stage by hunters and a blessing by the elder.
Actors wearing traditional, colourful masks and sophisticated costumes perform outdoors at public squares or temple years or, more recently, in theatres. The centre of the operatic space is usually marked with a tree wrapped up in paper to commemorate the founder of Tibetan opera and surrounded with blessed water and offerings. Nowadays, as in older times, opera unites Tibetans from different parts of the country and outside it, being one of the sources of national identity and pride.
GD artists perform fragments of Pema Woebar at Shoton Festival in Dharamsala
His Holiness the Dalai Lama on several occasions has emphasized the importance of preserving and promoting traditional Tibetan dance, music, opera and folklore and has especially shown keen interest in Tibetan opera. He advised to continue the tradition especially among the young people and to keep the spirit of the opera alive in Tibetan public’s minds. Having this in mind, Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), organizes annual Shoton festival.
Over the years, since 2001, members of Gangjong Doeghar’s have been fortunate to participate in Shoton Festival held consecutively every year in McLeodganj in Upper Dharamsala, in the benign and auspicious presence of His Holiness the Dalai Lama.
We study operatic styles and singing with well-known performers from Tibet and India, perfect our skill at rehearsals, study traditional texts, make costumes – and above all, perform!
In 2012 we staged Pema Woebar, a well-known classical opera about Guru Padmasambhawa (summary of the plot is below). In 2013, we performed Drowa Sangmo story, at Shoton Festival arranged in Kollegal Tibetan Settlement in Southern India.
Tashi Shoelpa used to be performed on auspicious occasions before holy lamas. This dance originally appeared in a dream to the fifth Dalai Lama. The performer wearing a white bearded mask represents Thangthong Gyalpo, the founder of Lhamo and the other characters are his students who receive instruction from him. The performance of this dance is believed to bring good luck.
This ritual dance is performed before the start of Tibetan Opera and is meant to purify the stage on which the opera will be performed. The masked characters are called Ngonpas (blue-masks), or hunters, and they represent the deity Vajrapani. The girls, wearing five panelled crowns with large rosettes represent Dakinis or celestial beings. At the end of the dance, everyone tosses tsampa, roasted barley flower in the air to appease the Boddhisatva and deities and pray for peace and prosperity for all sentient beings.
A lesson in history – performance of Lhamo opera in Kalimpong.
Kalimpong Mela 1957 (photo by Mr Li)
A Handful of Facts
Stage decorations are often reduced to a painting of Tibetan landscape in the background, but the use of stage props is quite popular.
Tibetan operas call for six performing skills, singing, dancing, rhyming, narrating, performing and tumbling. The singing is sonorous and marked by drawls at the end. Dance movements are stylised and vivid. Even everyday scenes such as greetings and farewells are translated into the poetics of dance. Dances are also used to describe characters or change the mood during the performance. Songs, rich and melodic and very demanding on the performers are used to express moods of characters or portray characters.
Over the centuries, Tibetan opera has developed into a three-part performance. The prelude features religious rituals such as Cham dances. Then introductory songs and dances present the characters and summarise the story line of the opera that is to follow. The second part is the opera itself. The third part is an epilogue which features a blessing ceremony and is also an occasion for the presentation of khataks (silk ritual greeting scarves) and donations from the audience.
Tibet has an annual opera festival Shoton which dates back to 1416.
- By the turn of the 15th century, folk singing and dancing turned into popular entertainment. At that time Thangthong Gyalpo, a great Buddhist master of many extraordinary talents, greatly contributed to the development of Tibetan opera. He was, among others, a bridge construction engineer - some of his bridges are still in working condition! Once, after spending three years trying to raise money for another bridge, he chose seven beautiful and clever girls from among his followers and organized a performance team. He adapted Buddhist stories into simple-plot song and dance dramas and directed them himself. The team performed his dramas in different parts of Tibet, and in this way money was raised for the construction of the bridge. These dramas were the first, simple Tibetan operas.
- First Tibetan operas were performed about 1,400 years ago. Initially, they were deity worship rituals interspersed with folk dances.
Traditional name of Tibetan opera is Lhamo or Ache Lhamo which means “sister goddess”.
There are about 20 traditional operas, but unfortunately some of the scripts were lost and only the names and sometimes the plots are known today. The remaining repertoire centres on Buddhist tales, historical legends and romance. The best known classical operas are Nangsa Woebum, Sug ki Nyima, Dowa Sangmo, Choegyal Norsang, Chungpo Dhonyoe Dhondup, Pema Woebar and Choegyal Drimey Kunden.
During the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, in the 17th century, opera was separated from religious rituals and became an independent dramatic form dominated by singing and dancing; the performers were using characteristic masks. At that time, troupes from across Tibet gathered every year at the Drepung Monastery to present their best performances at the Shoton Festival. During the reign of the seventh Dalai Lama, the venue moved to Norbu Lingka. The whole families and even entire villages would come to watch the performances day and night, for a month and a half. During the festival, giant pictures of Lord Buddha are also displayed and revered by the crowds and performers.
Throughout the main part of the opera, the narrator explains the episodes which are about to be performed by actors. The scenes are enlivened with singing in dancing A traditional performance of an opera can take a whole day, or even two or three days. Modern adaptations divide an opera into several acts and the performance takes about three hours.
Typical supporting roles in the opera include young and old man/woman, villains, clowns and animals. All roles have their specific formats and characteristic costumes.
Tibetan opera has a number of schools which differ by the style of singing, influence of local folklore, austerity of the performances and the amount of acrobatics and comic effects in the performances.
To honor the great founding father, Thangthong Gyalpo who considered as the father of Tibetan Opera a blessing of his statue always ends with the presentation of the hada (a strip of raw silk or linen used for ritual greetings) by the performers and audience members.