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Tibet opera

Tibetan Opera: 'Living Fossil' of Tibetan Culture

Tibetan Opera, or Ace Lhamo in Tibetan, is an ancient art form that has developed over the centuries. Hailed as 'the living fossil of traditional Tibetan culture,' it boasts a history of more than 600 years -- about 400 years longer than China's national treasure, Peking Opera.

Tibetans have long cherished this important folk art, which has become a source of identity for them. It is said that wherever you find Tibetans, you will find Tibetan Opera.

Tibetan people's 'fairy sisters'

There is a beautiful legend about 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 to dance 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.

Tibetan Opera became known in the local language as Ace Lhamo ('fairy sisters'), and 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.

From ritual dances to cultural syncretism

However, some say the origin of Tibetan Opera goes back a millennium to Tibetan ritual dances and early Indian Buddhist drama. 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.

According to Tibetan historical records, when Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was married to the Tibetan King Songtsan Gambo, she brought the costumes, music, and dances of the Han people to Tibet. Such items were greatly admired by the king, who in turn, had 16 beautiful girls trained in an art form combining the Han-style and Tibetan folk music and dance to entertain the princess.

In the eighth century, the Tibetan King Khrisong Detsan became a follower of Buddhism under the influence of his mother, Princess Jincheng of the Tang Dynasty. He invited the Lotus-Born Monk from India to spread Buddhism throughout Tibet and built the Samye Monastery. At the inauguration ceremony, a pantomimic dance show based on the deity worship ritual of the Bon religion (a native religion of Tibet) and Tibetan folk dances were staged.

During the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century, this performing art was separated from religious rituals and became an independent dramatic form. What started off as pantomime evolved into a structured art of song, dance, chants, and narration, accompanied by flamboyant masks. Story lines included the nation's history,
ancient legends and of heroes and gods,and satires on current events. The tradition was passed down from one generation to the next, developing into Tibetan opera, which was popularized throughout the region.

As the opera matured it became increasingly complex in structure, containing many literary strands, with very beautiful story depictions. Over time the opera also absorbed many local dances and other art forms and now, there is always a light-hearted humor in it that appeals to audiences.
Tibetan Opera: 'Living Fossil' of Tibetan Culture

Lavish, flamboyant, and over the top

Traditionally, the theater for Tibetan Opera was an open circular space sheltered by a canopy, with the stage defined by a magical circle and central altar.

Over the centuries, the opera has formed a three-part stage process.

In the prelude, known as 'Wenbadun,' Wenba men in blue masks, two Jialu men, and several fairies take the stage to perform religious rituals and songs and dances, and introduce the actors and actresses.

Next, a narrator explains the plot, section by section, as the opera is being performed, episode by episode. In the absence of a realistic setting and props, the narrator's words must conjure up the stage effects in the audience's imagination. Two musicians -- a drummer and a cymbalist -- sit on the side of the stage. An idiosyncratic drumbeat, accompanied by a specific dance step, identifies each character.

The performance ends with a blessing ritual that features a blessing ceremony and is also an occasion for the audience to present hada and donations.

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 actor's role 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, and so on.

Tibetan Opera call for skills in singing, dancing, elocution and the martial arts. Historical pageantry, myth, and magic are woven together with earthly 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.

Today, changes have taken place in the structure, singing, dancing, masks, and stage format of Tibetan Opera; an orchestra, backdrop, lighting, and make-up have also been added. Tibetan opera is now also performed both in the open air and indoors.

Four schools and eight great classical operas

Today, Tibetan Opera has four schools:

1. The Goinba School

The Goinba School, originating in Ngamring and Lhaze counties of Southwest China's Tibet Autonomous Region, features high-pitched and sonorous singing, mixed with songs and dances from the Doi area, and traditional acrobatics.

2. The Gyanggar School

The Gyanggar School is popular in Rinbung, Gyangze, and Xigaze, and is characterized by an ancient, rugged, and solemn style derived from Lamaism.

3. The Xangba School

The Xangba School from western Tibet combines the influence of local folklore and the Gyanggar School.

4. The Gyormolung School

The Gyormolung School from the Shannan and Lhasa areas is the most recently established school. 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 Province's Garze region as well as the Southeast Asian countries of India and Bhutan.

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.
Rebirth of the legendary opera

Throughout the ages Tibetan Opera has played a central role in the life of the Tibetan people. It features prominently in a number of Tibetan festivals and temple fairs, some of which are specifically designed for it, such as the Shoton Festival (also known as Yoghurt Festival). By the 19th century most districts in Tibet had their own opera troupes.

The opera spread from Shannan, Xigaze, and Lhasa to other parts of Tibet, and further into Southwest China's Sichuan and Yunnan provinces, Northwest China's Qinghai and Gansu provinces, and the neighboring countries of India, Bhutan, and Nepal.

However, Tibetan Opera, boasting the longest history among the few other folk operas of Chinese ethnic minorities, was once on the verge of fading away in the 20th century like many other traditional folk arts.

During the 600-year of development, Tibetan people created about 20 traditional repertoires, but unfortunately some of the play scripts have been lost, and only the names, and sometimes the plots, are remembered today.
Some village troupes are unable to play the famous Eight Great Classical Tibetan Operas, and other troupes were even disbanded years ago because of the passing away of elder artists, a drain of excellent performers, capital shortage, and the influence of 'pop dances and songs,' all of which resulted in an accelerated phasing-out of Tibetan Opera.

To salvage and preserve the threatened unique Tibetan art, a nationwide rescue program has been launched in recent years, and the local government of Tibet is busy preparing for Tibetan Opera to be listed as a 'Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity' by UNESCO (United Nations' Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

Today, Tibetan Opera is becoming increasingly recognized in other parts of China and beyond; it has toured Japan, the United States, and other countries, where it is regarded as a treasure of Chinese ethnic art.

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