Singing praises of Ti­betan opera

China Daily (Canada) - - SPECIAL - By DA QIONG and PALDEN NY­IMA in Ti­bet

Ti­betan opera, also called aje lhamo in Ti­betan, is an an­cient art form 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, the Pek­ing Opera.

Ac­cord­ing to many fres­coes in sev­eral an­cient monas­ter­ies, Ti­betan opera orig­i­nated from a form of an­cient opera called bagkarpo (white mask), which ap­peared 13, 000 years ago.

Dur­ing the 14th cen­tury, a high­rank­ing monk and bridge builder named Drupthob Thang­tong Gyalpo de­cided to build iron bridges across all of the ma­jor rivers in Ti­bet to im­prove trans­porta­tion and fa­cil­i­tate pil­grim­ages.

Thang­tong Gyalpo was a tal­ented ar­chi­tect, met­al­lur­gist and an artist. Dur­ing his re­ported 125-year life, he con­structed 58 iron-chain bridges in Ti­bet.

To fund the project, Thang­tong 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 projects. That is be­lieved to be the source of the present Ti­betan opera.

The opera be­came known lo­cally as aje lhamo (“fairy sis­ters”), and Thang­tong Gyalpo is con­sid­ered the fa­ther of Ti­betan opera.

To honor him, a bless­ing of his statue pre­cedes each per­for­mance and usu­ally con­cludes with the pre­sen­ta­tion of the hada (a strip of raw silk or li­nen used for rit­ual greet­ings) by the per­form­ers and au­di­ence mem­bers.

Dur­ing the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th cen­tury, Ti­betan opera 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 his­tory, an­cient leg­ends of he­roes and gods, and satires on cur­rent events. The tra­di­tion was passed down from one gen­er­a­tion to the next, de­vel­op­ing into Ti­betan opera.

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

Three fea­tures of Ti­betan opera are: full plot, beau­ti­ful tune and el­e­gant dance steps. Twenty types of tunes can re­flect dif­fer­ent plots and char­ac­ters.

A com­plete Ti­betan opera con­tains three steps. First, a nar­ra­tor makes an open­ing state­ment to show that the per­for­mance has be­gun; sec­ond, all per­form­ers work closely to per­form the story with songs and dances; third, the nar­ra­tor makes a clos­ing speech.

At the end of the clos­ing speech, the or­ga­nizer of the per­for­ sto­ries of Ti­betan opera have dis­ap­peared for a long time.


Ti­bet’s opera has been per­formed in the re­gion for more than 600 years.

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