The enchanting world of Tibetan opera

All images here from Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy, The singing mask.

Tibetan opera is just enthralling.

Best studied of the various dramatic genres among the Tibetan peoples is ache lhamo of central Tibet—a seamless blending of sacred and secular, human and divine, comedy and deep introspection (cf. European mystery plays, or indeed Mozart’s The magic flute).

Usually I leave audio/video clips for a later section, but here I want to plunge right into this enchanting world, with its intoxicating singing, in this excerpt from Sukyi nyima performed by former members of TIPA from Dharamsala:

As a caveat against reification, such footage reminds us that, as with all musickinglhamo is a social event—performed over a whole day (or more) under an awning in the open air. In the words of Jamyang Norbu, it “combines the relaxed informality of village cricket [!], the magical world of pantomime, and the open-air eating and drinking of a good picnic”.

Isabelle Henrion-Dourcy makes a fine guide to lhamo, with her experience among Tibetans both inside the PRC and in exile—an order that now seems suitable. [1]

She edited the attractive, instructive volume

  • The singing mask: echoes of Tibetan opera (2001)
    (some chapters here).

In her Introduction, she sums up the main themes within the “fragmented and politicised” research. Both in the PRC and in exile, lhamo has become an icon of “popular” Tibetan culture, with concomitant folklorisation. Though ritual elements are strong, in the PRC it is perceived as a necessary counterpart to monastic culture. Professionalisation has brought modifications to vocal styles, costume, and movement, as well as in context and economic conditions.

Within the PRC, Isabelle comments that lhamo became a focus of the “mind-boggling” search for entirely secular elements within Tibetan culture”, an ideological mold that “obliterated the deep ties that opera had with religious and institutional aspects […] not only in its content and symbolism but also regarding its social context”. More generally, I note that the dichotomy fails to do justice to the rich variety of performance genres along the sacred-secular continuum.

As Isabelle observes,

any attempt at (re)presenting Tibetan culture today is inseparable from an implicit ideological and political commentary on the situation of Tibet, through history and at present. Tibet’s past still has a very long future. Given all these difficulties, how can one make a valid representation of the tradition of opera? Who can claim representational authority? An academic point of view would understand that a valid representation needs to incorporate in a critical way all the key diverging views.

With that qualification, most articles are based on documenting the tradition before the transformations since the 1960s; and on the Lhasa tradition, in particular that of the Kyormolung troupe—also a popular theme of studies within the TAR. Most of the splendid photos show the early period.

The main periods, and areas, can be outlined thus: before the Chinese occupation of 1950; until the 1959 rebellion and escape of the Dalai Lama into exile at Dharamsala; and the reform era within the PRC.

The volume proper opens with a reprint of Jeanette Snyder’s ground-breaking 1979 overview, based largely on her studies in Dharamsala in 1963–64, giving a historical introduction and vivid accounts of the unfolding of the drama. Citing a 1958 list, she provides details of the four major and six minor troupes engaged by the (Tibetan) government for the summer Shotön festival at the Norbulingka.

After Tashi Tsering’s chapter on the early history of lhamo through the life of the saintly Thang stong rgyal po, Lobsang Samten focuses on the ritual prelude (see also here) and coda (“auspicious victory of the gods”), both substantial sequences of blessings led by hunters, princes, and goddesses. With the help of actors themselves, as well as scholars of classical Tibetan, he elucidates their complex orally-transmitted language, providing valuable clues to performance vocabulary.

lhamo 130

Perhaps this is a suitable moment for an outline of the elements of lhamo in performance.

In a largely oral tradition (with most performers illiterate), the voices are accompanied by a mere two percussionists on drum and cymbals, without melodic instruments (like the strictest traditions of Chinese ritual—but unlike modernised versions of professional lhamo groups in the PRC). Some masks are worn (cf. Noh). The plot is punctuated by dance, some popular songs, and comic interludes, with some characters akin to panto.

lhamo 111
Norbu Tsering.

And so onto Isabelle’s chapter with Tenzin Gönpo, which addresses the nuts and bolts of the two main vocal styles, with comments from the great Norbu Tsering (1927–2013), whose autobiography is a major resource. The lack of notated examples is of no consequence, but one longs for video, or at least audio, of their demonstration.

The authors discuss fast chanted recitation and, most remarkably, the intense, moving namthar arias—high and guttural, free-tempo, melismatic, with glottal tremulations, sung solo with supporting chorus.

The namthar play a rather similar role to the arias of Bach Passions, though the resemblance perhaps ends there… Here the authors discuss the incipit, inflexions (“change through bending”), glottalisations, non-lexical ornamental interpolations (a common feature of other Tibetan genres, and in much singing around the world, e.g. Navajo), and (also in fine detail) the role of the chorus that supports the solo namthar. They cite a wonderful description by Jacques Bacot in 1921—in Isabelle’s translation:

The king is the one who sings the slowest, as is becoming for such a solemn and august character. In a way, he stutters at the end of his sentences. The last syllable (in Tibetan, the verb encapsulating the idea) cannot merely go out from his mouth and hurry. It sort of falls off his mouth, separate, precious, like a gift anxiously awaited. And all his court, as if suspended during his speech, collects the king’s last word and sings it with him. The feeling is admirable.

Next they analyse namthar melody, discussing in turn terminology, leitmotivs, male and female melodies (gendered concepts as in dancing), “long” and “short” tunes, the special category of “sad” songs, the relation of principle and practice, and the incorporation of folk elements.

This whole discussion adds to our already complex notions of “improvisation”; and it makes a model integration of emic and etic approaches. Though Isabelle proclaims her lack of qualification to broach “musical” issues, this chapter shows how much untrained scholars can—and must—contribute to study of soundscape, confounding the feeble disclaimers of scholars of Daoism.

The authors conclude by observing increasing standardization, mainly within the PRC but also in exile.

The volume ends with a chapter by Jamyang Norbu—always a stimulating, frank commentator. He gives a fine introduction to the challenges faced by the exile community from 1959 in establishing the lhamo scene in Dharamsala, under the guidance of Norbu Tsering, as they pieced the melodies together like a jigsaw from the memories of various people”. Jamyang Norbu reflects on his early years as member of the Drama Society, forerunner of TIPA, which he served as director from 1980 to 1985.

lhamo 113

Jamyang Norbu: “My inability to sing opera arias did not prevent me from playing the role of the village idiot in the story”.

At first living conditions were grim, and many of the performers in poor health. In Dharamsala too, there was a lively debate over the tensions between tradition and innovation. Some monks objected to the scenes in lhamo satirising religion, but

I replied that opera performers had been performing such satires and making such irreverent jokes even in the old days, and that I would certainly not stop this democratic tradition in our performing culture.

Indeed, in an adaptation of Prince Norsang he managed to insert a scene satirising religious intolerance: a priest, realizing that whatever ritual he performs will cause offence to one sect or other, is reduced to singing a popular Hindi film song instead.

Morale was low, with performers suffering from the traditional prejudice against actors and musicians; funding was also a problem. Gradually they created a viable tradition, mustering sets, costumes, masks, and props, and training performers. While adhering to the traditional accompaniment of drum and cymbals, they experimented with three different sizes of drum. They also recreated the Shöton opera festival in Dharamsala.

In 1981 Jamyang Norbu wrote a new lhamo script Chaksam (“The iron bridge”), based on the trials of Thangtong Gyalpo (cf. Tashi Tsering’s chapter), with Norbu Tsering adapting the melodies. Jamyang Norbu’s questioning spirit is evident. Observing that “the Tibetan opera is frankly Lhasa-centric and unabashedly medieval in outlook”, he notes the stereotyped depictions of regional characters as villains and buffoons. So, wanting to have “at least one opera where a humble Tibetan layperson from outside Lhasa was the principal character”, he wrote the story around two lowly pilgrims—one from Kham, the other from Amdo. And he also sought to educate younger Tibetans in the texture of life in the past.

As they refined their productions, they also worked on giving contemporary relevance to the comic scenes. They paid attention to the whole pageantry of performance. Lhamo became a meaningful part of community life. Only the quality of singing was considered inferior to the halcyon days of old Lhasa.

In 1985 Jamyang Norbu was ousted from TIPA amidst political intrigue, again featuring his experiments in drama. He comments on the later fortunes of lhamo in Dharamsala, and other diaspora groups, reflecting on the challenges of maintaining Tibetan culture outside Tibet.

In order to truly survive, not only in museums, or in the accolade and admiration of foreign friends, Tibetan culture, especially performing culture, must be able to entertain and inspire a new generation of Tibetans, and must have real meaning in the lives of Tibetans everywhere.

In 1986 Jamyang Norbu edited Zlos-gar, an important early introduction to the Tibetan performing arts. Meanwhile he has kept a keen eye on the revival within the PRC.

For a vignette evoking a rainy TIPA performance of opera in 1995, see Keila Diehl, Echoes from Dharamsala (2002), pp.70–72.

* * *

As ever, such careful work on documenting the tradition should complement studies of ongoing change. There’s always more fieldwork to do among both professional and amateur troupes. [3]

I look forward to reading Isabelle’s magnum opus (976 pages!)

  • Le théâtre ache lhamo: jeux et enjeux d’une tradition tibetaine (2017) (reviewed here), with historical background, the relationship with Buddhism, social ethnography, and a focus on the practical aspects of performance.

* * *

We’re now ready to immerse ourselves in the trials of the pious Nangsa woebum (plot summary here), as performed by TIPA in Dharamsala, unfolding over nearly seven hours! Starting here:

followed by Parts 23, and 4.

We can also compare online videos from within the TAR, like this excerpt from Sukyi Nima at the Norbulingka for the 2014 Shöton festival:

And here’s the first of eighteen short clips from a 2019 Shöton performance at the Norbulingka (they don’t follow on, so type 羅布林卡藏戲):

Returning to the exile scene, after our initial introduction to Sukyi Nyima, we can again relish it complete—here’s the first of fifteen instalments (again, they don’t often appear in sequence, so you may have to type the next section into the YouTube search box):

One of the most charming stock characters in world drama is the truth-speaking parrot (“Despite the warnings King Sengey receives from his sagacious parrot advisor, he banishes Sukyi Nyima from the kingdom”).

lhamo 122

But in between the more popular songs and dances, the rapid narration and the slapstick, it’s the searing intensity of the namthar singing that is most captivating.

[1] See her section in the New Grove dictionary, §III, 5; her bibliography of Western-language sources, §7; and for Tibetan and Chinese sources, see here.
In Chinese, note also the opera volumes (Zhongguo xiqu zhi and Zhongguo xiqu yinyue jicheng) of the Anthology for TAR. For all its ideological perspective, as with the volumes for Han Chinese traditions, a wealth of information is contained among the many rubrics of the xiqu zhi—such as masks, costumes, professional and amateur troupes, venues and performance customs, and historical artefacts.
For more comparisons of the PRC and exile scenes, see e.g.

[2] As with Flann O’Brien‘s references to the ouevre of De Selby in The third policeman, the footnotes often dwarf the main text, but are most edifying. Please excuse the brevity of this footnote.

[3] For some more adventurous recent innovations within the PRC, see Isabelle’s article “Quelques voies de renouveau pour le théâtre traditionnel tibétain depuis les années 2000” (2019).

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