Tibetan Opera

Tibetan Opera (Ace Lhamo, in Tibetan, or literally "Sister Goddess", in English, though the word lhamo actually means "fairy", a reference to the beautiful girls who performed the ritual, 14th century dances that are considered the precursor to Tibetan Opera), is an ancient art form in Tibet that boasts a history of over 600 years, making Tibetan Opera at least 400 years older than Peking Opera, China’s national and therefore "yardstick" theatre form.

But Tibetan Opera is more than just an operatic form of theatre with a rather ancient history, comparatively speaking; it is recognized as an integral part of the very cultural identity of the Tibetan people, since it has roots that go back to Tibet's pre-Buddhist era, Bön religion, which in turn incorporates elements of Tibet's pre-Bön era, shamanistic, animist-oriented religion (note that animism is the belief that all thing, inanimate as well as animate, possess a spirit), which of course means that Tibetan Opera has roots that go back to the very beginnings of Tibetan culture.

Though a 14th century Tibetan monk is credited with having initiated a performance that is considered to be the direct precursor to Tibetan Opera, as will be seen in the next section, an older staging of pantomimic dances that incorporated elements of Bön rituals associated with deity worship, as well as elements of traditional Tibetan folk dances, all stitched together into ingenious plays compiled for the occasion by the Indian-Buddhist monk, Padmasambhava (see immediately below) – which event could arguably be claimed as the first operatic performance in Tibet's history – was staged at the 8th century inauguration ceremony of Trisong Detsen, the new Zanpu, or King of Tibet, who ruled from CE 755-ca.800.

Trisong Detsen was the son of the Tang court princess and foster daughter of Emperor Zhongzong, Princess Jincheng (CE ca.694-739), herself a devout follower of Buddhism who had been married into the Tibetan court (Princess Jincheng became the wife of Chidaizhudan, the then King of Tibet) as a friendship gesture between the two countries. Princess Jincheng persuaded her son to make Buddhism the official religion of Tibet under the guidance of the aforementioned Indian monk, Padmasambhava ("The Lotus Born", better known as Lopon Rinpoche, or simply Padum, in Tibet), whom King Trisong Detsen had duly invited to Tibet in order to spread the knowledge and practice of Buddhism throughout the kingdom.*

The Tibetans cherish their unique opera, which has been called a "living fossil of traditional Tibetan culture" and which the Tibetan people have done their utmost to keep alive by renewing it, making it as contemporary as possible while remaining as true to its origins as feasible, even though Tibetan Opera came very close to disappearing not so very long ago amidst the social upheaval that has characterized Tibetan culture the past half-century.

The Genesis of Tibetan Opera

Like many ancient beginnings that are enshrouded in a haze of uncertainty, the origins of Tibetan Opera are "explained" with the help of a legend – in this case, one that appears to be more factual than fanciful. The important thing to remember when presented with an "origins" legend is that 'nothing comes from nothing', meaning that, in the case of the origin of Tibetan Opera, it was created out of certain pre-existing, ancient Tibetan cultural traditions such as stylized dance, music and perhaps the custom of parading highly symbolic religious icons during public processions (its operatic equivalent would be the highly semantically-laden set of masks typical of Chinese and Tibetan Opera).

And, of course, as we have seen above, the genesis of Tibetan Opera may well have been the 8th century mix of Bön ritual dances and secular Tibetan folk dances that clothed the imaginative skeletal plays written and choreographed by the Indian-Buddhist monk, Padmasambhava, and which were performed at the coronation of King Trisong Detsen.

But even these individual theatrical elements naturally have roots that go back to the beginning of culture, since human beings everywhere seem to have developed a penchant for music, dance and storytelling in one form or another (note that simply parading certain semantically-laden images – and in a given sequence – can be a form of storytelling as long as the audience aleady knows the story from the tribe's, or clan's, oral traditions – indeed, several local operas in China make use of precisely such symbolic props as an aid in "telling" the story whose content the audience already knows... they say that the same general principle of presumed prior knowledge applies in Western Opera as well, in the sense that if you don't know the story line and if you lose – or "lose" – the program the ticketer hands you, then you are up the proverbial creek without a paddle).

The legend that "explains" Tibetan Opera is not a fanciful one, i.e., it is not of the usual 'celestial fairy maiden visiting her earthly cousins', Chinese variety, but is of a much more banally compassionate variety: the story of how a humble, 14th century Tibetan Buddhist monk employed the crowd-drawing services of a troupe of pretty girls in order to inspire local villagers and chance passers-by throughout Tibet to dig deeper into their pockets, so that the humble monk would have the necessary funds for building a series of simple, iron bridges across Tibet's many rivers that would make it possible for more "parishioners" to visit the local Buddhist temple (and surely the wise monk also realized that those same bridges would make it possible for Tibet's peasants to more easily take their wares to market, thus bolstering their livelihoods, which in turn would strengthen ties to the Buddhist temples... in South-Central and Southeast Asia, there is a strong, age-old tradition for monks to involve themselves in civic affairs, for the good of the people).

According to the legend, then, Drupthok Thangthong Gyalpo, a senior Buddhist monk hoping to effectuate the building of a series of iron bridges throughout Tibet, launched a campaign aimed at raising funds for this purpose. The entertainment, or performance, that Thangthong Gyalpo put together to this end involved certain aria and other musical obbligato (indispensible, or fixed elements) composed by Thangthong Gyalpo – which was Thangthong Gyalpo's unique and transforming addition to the simple plays compiled by Padmasambhava, and which perhaps justify the claim that it was indeed Thangthong Gyalpo, not Padmasambhava, who "invented" Tibetan Opera – with Thangthong Gyalpo himself playing cymbals and drums while the troupe of pretty girls performed the hybrid dances handed down by Padmasambhava that had since been modified, and would continue to be modified down through the ages.

In addition to adding genuinely recognizable operatic elements to the simple plays of Padmasambhava, Thangthong Gyalpo, together with his troupe of merry dancers, travelled the country staging performances for the public, which is another of Thangthong Gyalpo's transforming contributions to the Tibetan operatic tradition, for there is a world of difference between staging a one-off performance for the coronation of a king and staging a long, on-the-road series of performances for the people.

Where the good monk paved the way, others followed, and soon secular theatre troupes began to travel the country staging public performances. Moreover, local temples everywhere throughout Tibet were turning to this new fund-raising method in order to repair the existing local temple, build a new one, or to finance a much-needed well or irrigation project, etc. – proof, perhaps, that the Tibetan people appreciate a pretty face! It was from these simple beginnings that Tibetan Opera as it is known today eventually emerged. As a hommage to Thangthong Gyalpo – the individual not unjustifiably credited with having originated what would one day become Tibetan Opera – Tibetan Opera troupes usually end a performance by handing out hada to the audience, hada being a small strip of silk used as a greeting.**

Features of Tibetan Opera

Tibetan Opera performances have traditionally followed fixed procedures, and even though Tibetan Opera has naturally evolved over time, innovations are incorporated with great conservatism, so as not to divorce Tibetan Opera from its ancient roots. Certain elements of Tibetan Opera seem, however, to be immutable. For example, each opera performance begins with the ceremonious purification of the stage and a blessing to God, a special, singing narrator rapidly chants a set of verses that summarize the segment of the plot to come, the actors take the stage and perform the segment in question, a new segment is presented by the narrator, followed by its presentation by the actors, and so on and so forth in this alternating fashion until the conclusion of the play is reached, after which the performance invariably ends with a ritual of blessing, which typically, as indicated above, involves distributing hada to the audience.

Costumes – The costumes used in Tibetan Opera range from the simple to the lavish, depending on the play and on the role, or the persona, in question, with the costume – and movements – of a royal personnage being more stately, while the costume of a simple peasant would be considerably more modest and would be designed for more lively movement. All costumes are made of silk, while the color and adornments differ depending on the persona wearing them. Most eye-catching brocades, especially brocades highlighted with prodigious amounts of gold thread, are reserved for masks (see below) and other headdress, but more modest and more intricate brocades can adorn hems and borders and sometimes the chest area of the costume itself. Dragon and cloud motifs are common in such brocades.

Masks – The highlight of Tibetan Opera, despite the innovation of make-up, remains the mask. The "face" depicted on the mask, whose color signifies the rank of the persona in question – for example, a red mask represents the king; a green, the queen; a yellow, Lamas and deities, etc. – typically represents a celestial body: the sun, moon and planets. The unique combination of the color and the motif of the mask is a clue to the role of the persona in question.

The Musical Score – The musical score of Tibetan Opera has traditionally consisted strictly of the playing of drums and cymbals that punctuate every movement – though even this "sacred fixture" is now undergoing change (see the changes to Tibetan Opera in the section below, including the introduction of an orchestra) – and by the voices of the actors, of course. The rapidly chanted narration segments alternate with the sung dialogues of the performers. The accompanying dance movements shift from the elegantly fluid to the staccato-like to the purely acrobatic, in keeping with the unfolding action of the play.

Developments in Tibetan Opera

During the reign (1642–1682) of the 5th Dalai Lama, the performance of national-level Tibetan Opera was finally separated entirely from a religious context, and instead became an independent dramatic art form involving the highly structured performance of dance movements that were dictated by the content of the secular songs, chants and narrations that made up a typical Tibetan Opera of the latter half of the 17th century, albeit, songs, chants and narrations that continued to rely on a historical or a mythological theme, but also more topical events became the subject of Tibetan Opera. Indeed, as Tibetan Opera evolved, not only were the foibles of gods satirized, but also the foibles of mortals such as corrupt public officials and greedy businessmen, jealous husbands, etc.

Tibetan Opera calls for highly developed skills in singing, dancing and precise elocution, as well as in the mastery of certain martial arts. Historical pageantry, myth and magic are artfully woven together in Tibetan Opera with earthly humor and scenes from the daily lives of ordinary people, scenes that tell a story that is quite naturally both lofty and banal (if the story were only lofty, it would have little broad appeal – and Tibetan Opera does indeed have broad appeal – while if it were strictly banal, it would hardly be worthy of opera, much less worthy of national opera). In general, the profoundly lofty is what transforms an utterly banal story-within-a-story into a universal statement about the human condition, about our hopes and aspirations.

In more recent times, numerous original plays that made up the extensive repertoire of Tibetan Opera, and which existed only in an oral format, have all but disappeared – indeed, some have disappeared altogether, while in other instances, only the names of the persona and sometimes the plots are still remembered. This has prompted a nationwide campaign aimed at recovering as much of this lost heritage as possible, before it is too late.

Today, significant changes have taken place in the choreography of Tibetan Opera, the song and dance routines have been – and continue to be – updated, old masks have been upgraded and new masks added, and even the setting and stage format of the Tibetan Opera has changed to accomodate more modern touches such as the addition of an orchestra, the use of highly sophisticated spotlighting and the use of special make-up as a supplement to the use of the mask. Moreover, in Tibet itself, an operatic performance today is as often performed out of doors as indoors, weather permitting. In short, Tibetan Opera has evolved into a full-fledged folk art; it has also become a fixture during certain national festivals, especially during the Shoton Festival.

Tibetan Opera is of course appreciated far beyond Tibet's borders, not least by the large Tibetan diaspora in India, Japan, Europe and the US. With the aid and the blessings of the government, Tibetan Opera troupes make regular tours abroad, thus keeping alive the bonds of friendship between the aficionados of Tibetan Opera both inside and outside Tibet.

* Note that Pincess Jincheng was not the first Han Chinese princess to be married into Tibetan royalty as a means of strengthening amicable ties between China and Tibet. A generation or so earlier, Princess Wencheng (CE ca.625-ca.680), also a princess of the Tang court, was married to the Tibetan King Songtsan Gampo. This Chinese-Tibetan marriage, arranged on the demands of Songstan Gampo as a precondition to peace (the Tibetan king was refused the first time, but after another round of bloody fighting, the Tang emperor, Emperor Taizong, who ruled during the period CE 626-649, acquiesced), was in many respects much more significant than the later marriage between King Trisong Detsen and Princess Jincheng.

In fact, it is said that Princess Wencheng, together with Songtsan Gampo's Nepalese wife, Bhrikuti Devi – a similarly tactically arranged marriage for reasons of national security, both of which tactical marriages catapulted King Songtsan Gampo onto the world stage, making him known even in Arabia, news that had quickly travelled via the period's preeminent "grapevine", the Silk Road – both of whom were devout Buddhists, convinced King Songtsan Gampo that Buddhism was the right religion for Tibet.

It is therefore claimed that Buddhism was already introduced into Tibet by the time of the coronation of King Trisong Detsen. Moreover, Emperor Taizong sent a large entourage of Han Chinese servants to accompany Princess Wencheng to Tibet in order to ease the princess' transition to life in Tibet, in much the same way that the uncle of Catherine de Medici, Giovanni de Medici, aka Pope Leo X, sent an enormous entourage along with the teenage Italian girl who would one day become Regent of France after the death of her future husband, King Henry II (Catherine's leathersmiths invented the side-saddle so that the young, no-nonsense girl (most females at the French court in those days were frankly silly – in fact, it was more or less expected of them) could accompany Henry II's father, King François I, on his beloved fox hunts, and her chef brought along Italian silverware, something so new and so civilized to the somewhat less civilized French court that King François I declared that anyone inviting him to dinner would have to serve the feast on a table set with Italian silverware).

Han Chinese cultural traditions – from costumes to dance to music – were part of Princess Wencheng's gift to the Tibetan people, on behalf of the Chinese people, and thus it is without doubt that Tibetan cultural traditions were thereafter forever influenced by this as well as numerous other Chinese cultural inputs.

Alas, King Trisong Detsen's Chinese wife died an untimely death of smallpox at the age of only about 45. A smallpox epidemic that was raging through Tibet at the time killed Princess Jincheng, to which the king responded by expelling all foreign monks in the country to the Buddhist Kingdom of Gandara, located a comfortable distance from Tibet in the area of present-day northern Pakistan and Afghanistan (the Buddhists of the Kingdom of Gandara built the 6th century Giant Buddha figures of Bamiyan that were destroyed by the Taliban only a few months before the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US).

Note that though Buddhism had become the official religion in Tibet at the time of King Trisong Detsen, it was still only a thin veneer streched over the underlying ancient Bön religion that still held sway over hearts and minds in Tibet; the death of a royal wife – not to speak of the incidence of a plague like smallpox itself – was therefore seen as evidence of the displeasure of those ancient gods. King Trisong Detsen was perhaps not prepared to take such a drastic step as expunging Buddhism from Tibet, but booting out its foreign exponents, at least for a time, could maybe appease the ancient gods; at the very least, it might assuage the anger and fears of the rebellious Tibetan people.

** Note that the tradition of employing pretty faces as a fund-raising technique did not originate in Tibet in the 14th century – it was employed in China almost from the outset of Buddhism's spread there. And note that the Mongolian custom of presenting hada that came much later is not just borrowed from the Tibetans – the Mongolian strain of Buddhism is in fact Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism, which comes as no great surprise given that Buddhism spread throughout the western part of China during the Tang Dynasty especially, and given that during much of the Tang Dynasty period, the region bordering up to Mongolia (what was called the "Western Regions" by Han Chinese emperors) was occupied by Tibet after the early-period Tang Dynasty rulers had abandoned the Western Regions for economic reasons; it was expensive to equip and maintain Han Chinese garrisons there, and proxies were not always reliable.

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