20080229-dram about king gesar2 purdie.jpg
King Gesar drama

Tibetan Opera is called "Lhamo" or "Ace Lhamo" in the Tibetan language, meaning "Sister Fairy". A kind of public square opera, it employs songs, dances, chants and drama to tell stories, with most of its repertoire deriving from Buddhist teachings and Tibetan history. There is vocal music, separate roles, accompanying band and special masks and clothes.

Tibetan opera is one of the famous opera forms in China. It is performed without curtain or stage and has traditionally been performed in the street with a band, and performers singing while they dance. In the past, all performers were men and they often wore masks, and danced and sang to the accompaniment of musical instruments. More secular than other art forms, lhamo often deals with historical events, heroes and kings as well as the lives of the Buddha and well-known Bodhisattvas. Invented in the 14th century, it is often performed by traveling troupes in all day performances. A show usually begins with a ritual purification and a summary of the plot by a narrator. The actors wear costumes and display movements that are specific to their characters.

The main forms of expression in Tibetan Opera are is song and dance. The performance is divided into three parts: Wenkedun (rite of coming on the stage), Xiong (main part), and Zhaxi (rite of wishes at the end of the performance). The time duration is different for different plays: short ones last several hours while long ones are performed for 2 to 3 days. Folk opera is very popular in Tibet, especially in Lhasa, Lhokha, Shigatse and Chamdo, and also widespread in the nearby provinces like Sichuan, Gansu, Qinghai and Yunnan Provinces.[Sources: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Tibetravel.org]

Drum and cymbals are the only accompanying instruments for traditional Tibetan opera, and actors wear masks when they perform. Dark red mask stands for king, light red mask stands for ministers, yellow stands for Living Buddha, blue stands for hunter, green stands for female, white stands for ordinary male, black stands for negative character, and mask with half white and half black stands for double-dealer. Since the 17th century, twelve famous opera troupes gather in Lhasa in July every year, and perform for lamas, officials, monks and ordinary people.

Tibetan Opera Makes UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List

Tibetan Opera was inscribed in 2009 on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: Tibetan opera, the most popular traditional opera of minority ethnic groups in China, is a comprehensive art combining folk song, dance, storytelling, chant, acrobatics and religious performance. Most popular in the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau in western China, the performance begins with a prayer ceremony, including the cleansing of the stage by hunters and blessings by the elder, and concludes with another blessing. [Source: UNESCO]

The heart of the opera is a drama narrated by a single speaker and enacted by performers supported by groups of singers, dancers and acrobats. Actors wear traditional masks of a variety of shapes and colours that contrast with their simple makeup. Performances may take place in public squares or temples (or, today, on stage), with the centre of the space marked by a tree placed on the ground, wrapped in colourful paper and surrounded by purified water and theatrical props.

Rooted in Buddhist teachings, the stories told in Tibetan opera recount the triumph of good and the punishment of evil and therefore serve a social teaching function for the community. This multifaceted representative of Tibetan art and cultural heritage also acts as a bridge among Tibetans in different parts of the country, promoting ethnic unity and pride.

History of Tibetan Opera

Compared with other folk operas in China, Tibetan opera has the longest history, some say. They say that it has a history that dates back more than 14 centuries and is rooted in Tibetan ritual dances and early Indian Buddhist drama. Others say Tibetan opera was created by monk Tangdongjiebu of the Gelu denomination at the beginning of the 15th century for the purpose of collecting alms to construct a chain bridge over the Yarlung Tibetanbo River. This would make it 600 years old, about 400 years longer than China's national treasure, Peking Opera.

The Chinese government of course says it was invented or at least heavily influenced by the Chinese: According to government sources. In the 17th century Tibetan King Songtsan Gambo greatly admired the costumes, music and dancing of the Tang Dynasty introduced to Tibet by Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty when she married the Tibetan king. He arranged for the training of 16 beautiful girls in a combined art form of the Tang-style and Tibetan folk music and dancing in order to entertain the princess. Later, this entertainment developed into a more clearly defined form of dancing and singing. [Sources: chinaculture.org, Tibetravel.org]

There is a beautiful legend about the Tibetan Opera in its present form. During the 14th century, a high-ranking monk and bridge builder named Drupthok Thangthong Gyalpo decided to build iron bridges across all of the major rivers in Tibet to improve transportation and facilitate pilgrimages. To fund the project, Thangthong Gyalpo created a singing and dancing group of seven beauties who danced while he played the cymbals and drums. They performed throughout Tibet to earn money for his bridge project. This is believed to be the source of the present Tibetan Opera. Thangthong Gyalpo himself is considered as the father of Tibetan Opera. To honor the great founding father, a blessing of his statue always precedes each Lhamo and usually ends with the presentation of the hada (a strip of raw silk or linen used for ritual greetings) by the performers and audience members.

Tibetan opera was popular in the 17th century. Since the 17th century, Tibetan Opera developed and reached its peak with a long list of excellent players and traditional repertoires. Different genres evolved, each with a certain style. Performances were held during various festive occasions. The Shoton Festival which was once a religious festival became a special festive occasion of Tibetan Opera joint performance, during which many professional and amateur troupes were summoned to Lhasa to entertain the Dalai Lama and his followers.

Subjects and Themes of Tibetan Opera

Since Buddhist teachings and Tibetan history have provided the inspiration for Tibetan Opera, most of its repertoire is based on Buddhist stories and Tibetan history. The themes and subjects of the opera are also drawn from Tibetan history and Buddhism. They often have a moral message of good prevailing over evil and feature dancing and acting and have a main story line broken up by short parodies and satires.

Llamo is closely associated with Than-togpgyal-po, a deified saint and god of drama. To this day performances are dedicated to him and offerings are made to him. The performances themselves serve as a form of entertainment and way of appeasing the spirits of the soil to ensure a good harvest. The actors have traditionally been peasant farmers and shopkeepers but today there are members of semiprofessional troupes.

The scripts are derived from literary texts. A narrator provides background of the story and defines each main character. The dramatic part of the opera is presented as a tableaux with one or two actors singing with a chorus echoing the last phrase of each line or stanza. When a scene changes the performers perform a dance specific to their character as they move to a new position.

Tibetan Opera Schools and Plays

Today, Tibetan Opera has four schools: 1) The Goinba School, originating in Ngamring and Lhaze counties, features high-pitched and sonorous singing, mixed with songs and dances from the Doi area, and traditional acrobatics; 2) The Gyanggar School, popular in Rinbung, Gyangze and Xigaze and characterized by an ancient, rugged and solemn style derived from Lamaism; 3) The Xangba School, from western Tibet combines the influence of local folklore and the Gyanggar School; and 4)the Gyormolung School, from the Shannan and Lhasa areas is the most recent school to be established. Specializing in singing, choreography, stunts and comic effects, it is the most developed among the four schools and has formed a jubilant style with rich and colorful songs and dances. Today, Gyormolung troupes are active in different parts of Tibet and are even known in Sichuan's Garze region, India and Bhutan. [Source: Chinaculture.org; Tibetravel.org]

The Gyormolung (Juemulong School) is the most famous Tibetan Opera school. Though it was the last school that came into being, it is most vibrant and popular form because it brought forth many new ideas in vocal music, dance, tricks and comedy performances. Local Tibetan opera teams of the Juemulong school spread all over Tibet, Ganze in Sichuan, parts of India and Bhutan. Its performing forms include dance, speaking, chanting, fixed vocal music. [Source: Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, kepu.net.cn ~]

Tibetan Opera has traditionally been dominated by two sects — the Blue Mask and the White Mask. Juemulong belonging to the Blue Mask sect. During the period of the 13th Dalai Lama (1876-1933), there were 12 Tibetan opera troupes in Tibet. Juemulong is half professional because during most of its performers have other jobs. [Source: Uking Sun, chinadaily.com, September 24, 2009]

Tibetan Opera reflects the Tibetan people's lives from various periods. The original scripts from which the opera was adapted have remained popular readings among Tibetans for centuries. Currently there are about 20 traditional repertoires (although some of the scripts have been lost and only the names and some of the plots remain). The famous Eight Great Classical Tibetan Operas include Prince Nor-bzang, Maiden Vgro-ba-bzang-mo, Brothers Don-yod and Don-grub, Prince Dri-med-Kun-idan, Princess Wencheng, Gzugs-kyi-nyi-ma, Pad-ma-vod-vba and Maiden Shang-sa, most of which were derived from historic events, famous lives, folk tales and stories from the sutras.

Tibetan Opera Performance

Traditionally, the theater for Tibetan Opera was an open circular space sheltered by a canopy, with the stage defined by a sacred circle and central altar. The art form itself requires skills in singing, dancing, speaking martial arts. Historical pageantry, myth and magic are woven together with earthy humor and scenes from the daily lives of ordinary people. The primitive simplicity and vigor demonstrated in the singing and dancing is effectively reflected in the typical Tibetan landscape backdrops.

Over the centuries, Tibetan opera evolved into its current three-part stage format. In the prelude, known as "Wenbadun," Wenba men in blue masks, two Jialu men and several fairies take the stage, performing religious rituals, and songs and dances. A narrator expansively introduces the story, the characters and the libretto in rapid repetitive rhythm. The second part is the opera itself. All the players enter and start singing and dancing. The third part is an epilogue which features a blessing ceremony and is also an occasion for the presentation of hada (silk ritual greeting scarves) and donations from the audience. The highlight of the performance is its masks, through which the role of the players can be identified. The masks have various colors and motifs, each indicating a certain meaning. For example, the red mask refers to the king, the green the queen, while the yellow the lamas. [Sources: chinaculture.org, Tibetravel.org]

Tibetan Opera costumes are very lavish, with rich brocades and a striking variety of masks and animal motifs. The musical score is created entirely by the drum and cymbals that punctuate every movement, and by the singing actors. The rapidly chanted narration alternates with the sung dialogues repeated in the chorus. The dance movements are refined, exaggerated and vigorous. The highlight of Tibetan Opera is the mask. Located on the front of the mask is usually a motif, such as the sun or moon. The role of the actor can be identified from the type of mask he or she is wearing. For example, a red mask represents the king; a green, the queen; a yellow, Lamas and deities, etc.

Modernization of Tibetan Opera

Tibetan Opera nearly went extinct. In Qomolang Village, "hometown of Tibetan Opera", elderly Cangjue was once the only female master artist of the former Qomolang Village Tibetan Opera Troupe, popular throughout the Tibetan region. She said: "As a toddler, I followed my parents around, performing for meager returns. My stomach was often filled with nothing. Later I joined the village troupe. We used to perform in Lhasa and neighboring areas in summer. When winter came, we had to trek to Nepal and India. The trips were hard."

In the past, Tibetan Opera was only held outdoors, and each player only had one costume throughout the performance. Since the 1960s, Tibetan Opera has been performed indoors with lighting, backdrop, set, orchestral obbligato and a number of modern themes added. Today, changes have taken place in the structure, singing, dancing, masks and stage format of Tibetan opera, and an orchestra, backdrop, lighting and make-up have been added. Besides being performed in the open air, Tibetan operas are also performed on indoor stages. The stage format can be either traditional or modern. In the traditional format, a narrator explains the plot of the opera section by section as the opera is being performed episode.

Tibetan Opera is performed during important Tibetan Festivals, such as Tibetan New Year, Shoton Festival. The biggest Tibetan opera performances are held in Norbulingka Summer Palace in Lhasa during Shoton Festival in August. The opera part of the festival is called the Xuedun Festival or the "Tibetan Opera Festival".

Tibetan Opera Performers, Teachers and Students

Traditionally, Tibetan opera was performed mostly by part-time farmers-turned-actors in an open spaces in front of festive village crowds, the words, songs and dance movements were passed down from older actors to their apprentices. Tseten Dorje, a 76-year-old Tibetan opera actor learned from his parents. He was born into a drama troupe and first went on stage at the age of eight. "There were no textbooks on how to perform. It all depended on the memory and understanding of old actors," he said. [Source: Xinhua, May 11, 2011]

Cidan Duoji, 73, started to learn Tibetan Opera at the age of nine and has devoted all his life to this traditional folk art. He was originally a performer of Juemulong School, the most developed and popular Tibetan Opera form. Since retiring from the troupe, he spends most of his time teaching students at Tibet University and tutoring the non-professional performers of Tibetan Opera troupes in Lhasa, Shannan Prefecture and other regions in Tibet. It usually takes four years to master all skills of playing a role. The young performers can’t distinguish the different expression techniques and body movements, so I help them,” Cidan said. [Source: Uking Sun, chinadaily.com, September 24, 2009

In 2008, Tibet University opened the first undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Tibetan opera. Describing a class, Xinhua reported: Boys wearing blue masks and bright yellow blouses make quick, whirly dance moves while girls on coronals gently wave their long sleeves, accompanied by simple drum beats. Together with 17 classmates, 22-year-old Tseten Dorje has to practice this style of singing and dancing for at least two hours each day and, sometimes, for an entire whole day.

Compared to traditional teaching methods, the collegiate way of teaching the ancient art aims to not only train actors but also to foster future researchers, said Losang Choniyi, dean of the art school. "Students will have a comprehensive understanding of Tibetan opera and traditional art rather than just performance," Losang Choniyi said. Besides special training in singing, dancing, chanting and narration for Tibetan opera, the younger Tseten Dorje has taken classes on body training in modern dance, the history of Tibetan opera, music theory and Tibet's folk music and dance. "Body training is the toughest because I started at the age of 19. It is really painful but it will lay a very good foundation for dances," he said.

Princess Wencheng Mega-Drama

In August 2013, the Chinese government unveiled an expensive stage drama of on the Princess Wencheng Myth that the Chinese government financed itself. Save Tibet reported: A multi-million dollar drama about a Chinese princess is being staged in Lhasa in a bid by the authorities to increase high-end tourism and assert China’s propaganda message of its ownership of Tibet. The Princess Wencheng spectacle is being staged with a cast of nearly 600 on a stage nearly 100 metres long, in a fake Potala Palace that faces the real Potala. It is being performed at a time when Lhasa is under military lockdown with snipers visible on rooftops and its citizens subject to intense surveillance and ideological campaigns. [Source: Save Tibet ^]

Image Sources: Purdue University, Atlanta Chinese Dance Company, Save Tibet, Kalachakranet.org

Text Sources: 1) “Encyclopedia of World Cultures: Russia and Eurasia/ China “, edited by Paul Friedrich and Norma Diamond (C.K.Hall & Company, 1994); 2) Liu Jun, Museum of Nationalities, Central University for Nationalities, Science of China, China virtual museums, Computer Network Information Center of Chinese Academy of Sciences, kepu.net.cn ~; 3) Ethnic China ethnic-china.com *\; 4) Chinatravel.com \=/; 5) China.org, the Chinese government news site china.org | New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Chinese government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated September 2022

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