Choegyal Norsang: The United States' First Full-Length Tibetan Opera

ACTA - Posted on 28 November 2011

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A young performer in Chaksam-pa Tibetan Dance & Opera Company's Choegyal Norsang.By Lily Kharrazi, Living Cultures Grants Program Manager

On October 16, 2011, a full seven-hour Tibetan folk opera, or Lhamo, was mounted in Richmond, California -- the first of its kind in the United States.  The tale Choegyal Norsang (translated The Religious King Norsang) draws from Tibetan history and Buddhist teachings.  This complex story involves kingdoms that inhabit both earth and heaven, the sojourn of a king to retrieve his queen who had been whisked to safety in order to escape the wrath of his 500 other wives, water spirits who flee their sacred lakes, demons, and hilarious imps.  This allegory is brought to life by skilled artists whose training includes acting, dance, recitation, singing, martial arts, and physical comedy, complete with exquisite and richly textured costumes.  While the narrative may be fantastical it also proved to be fully relevant to the present as the story reminded the audience to safeguard the sanctity of water, as twists and turns in the plot revealed the social and environmental hazards of neglecting resources.  Tibet is the water shed of the majority of Asia’s greatest rivers.

The artists assembled to create the epic opera are all masters of the form who now live scattered throughout the United States and California.  Under the artistic direction of Ms. Tsering Wangmo, the Bay Area-based performing arts company Chaksam-pa Tibetan Dance & Opera Company is considered the most successful professional performance group outside of Tibet.  Through a 2010 grant from the Living Cultures Grants Program, funds were secured to fulfill a dream to create a full-length production for the community.  As Tsering explained, “Our community is three generations removed from Tibet now. There are elders who remember the Lhamo festivals but our children have not had access to this art form that is so central to who we are.”

Tsering herself is an exemplar of a successful Tibetan cultural activist and highly regarded master artist.  She and her fellow artists were trained by Tibetan masters in the opera forms at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) in Dharamsala, India.  TIPA was established by the Dalai Lama in 1959 upon fleeing from Tibet when it was brought under Chinese communist rule.  He recognized the importance of traditional arts as a vital link to Tibetan identity.  Tsering was born and raised in India until immigrating to the United States.  She was one of a small group of performers trained by Tibetan elders who established Chaksam-pa in 1989 in San Francisco.  Not only was it the first Tibetan organization formed in California, but is still the only Tibetan performing arts company in North America.

The opening remarks were given by Tenzin Tsedup, President of the Tibetan Association of Northern California & Tenzin Tethong, Former Prime Minister in both Tibetan and English languages.  A moment of silence and the lighting of butter lamps to commemorate those who have died in Tibet in pursuit of political independence followed the speeches.  A scarf offering ceremony to the founder and patron saint of the Lhamo tradition was explained by community member, Cynthia Josayma: “Thangtong Gyalpo, the patron saint and founder of the Tibetan Opera, created the form to bring Buddhist tales to communities throughout Tibet.  He is also known as Chaksampa, the Iron Bridge Builder for having built 108 iron link suspension bridges across Tibet, ensuring pilgrims, traders, and travelers had access to sacred Buddhist sites.”  She noted that his original iron link bridges inspired a new engineering renaissance influencing the designs of England’s London Bridge, New York’s Brooklyn Bridge, as well as the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge.

The Bay Area is home to approximately 1,500 Tibetan-Americans.  Larger populations can be found in Minneapolis, New York, and Toronto.  There is hope that the epic opera can be produced more frequently.  Tenzin Tethong, the former cabinet minister, would like to see the event become a gathering point for all Tibetans in North America, perhaps as a multi-day festival in years to come.  Clearly the day fulfilled a dream for the multi-generational crowd who delighted in the opportunity to gather and to watch the Opera for hours.  The etiquette at these performances is to bring food to share with one’s family, picnic style.  Children are free to move around; people visit and chat.  With food and warm tea flowing, the Opera attracted many people as the day progressed.  The spacious Craneway Pavilion, where the event was held, overlooks the Bay with two bridges in the distance reminding us that the creator of the Lhamo was also known as a bridge builder.  The vivid metaphor was apt for the vitality of the cultural display and celebration going on inside that day.

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An Epic Tibetan Opera Comes Alive


The first full-length Lhamo, or Tibetan opera, mounted in the United States by the artist collective known as Chaksam-pa was held in Richmond, California, on October 16, 2011. Trained artists who now live in the U.S. and Canada came together to mount this production.  Photo courtesy of Chaksam-pa Tibetan Dance & Opera Company.


A view of the wide space and backdrop which references the Tibetan mountains and monasteries of old.  Photo: ACTA


The mythic tale and allegory charts the travels of King Norsang in search of his abducted wife who is hiding in a heavenly home.   Along the way, he encounters creatures, holy men, and comic characters.  Photo: ACTA


Receiving blessings, another character embarks on a journey to restore peace to the kingdom because of the havoc wreaked by the disappearance of the wife.  Photo: ACTA


Characters are known to the spectators by their costumes: colors may indicate status or personal traits. Actor Sonam Tashi stands in repose.  Photo: ACTA


The female chorus play multiple roles in the story, representing the King's 500 wives as well as celestial water snakes.  All actors are trained to dance, sing, and recite poetry. Tsering Wangmo, artistic director of Chaksam-pa, stands on the far right.  Photo: ACTA


A close up of actors Tsering Dolma and Chime Youdon. All the artists were trained in Dharsalam, India, at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, founded by the Dalai Lama.  Photo: ACTA


A young performer on stage. The next generation of performers train largely outside of the United States.  Photo: ACTA


Battling good and evil is a mainstay of the allegory.  King Norsang must must endure many hardships before he can prove he is worthy to regain his celestial queen once again.  Photo: ACTA


The King encountering the creature.   Photo: ACTA


A comic character played by actor Tenzin Ngawang stumbles, drinks, and cajoles the audience with recitation and physical comedy.  Photo: ACTA


More comedic interludes.  Photo: ACTA


There are approximately 1,500 Tibetans in the Bay Area.   The close knit community has provided leadership in the cultural life of the exile community at large by establishing the only North American company dedicated to Tibetan dance and opera.  Photo: ACTA


Three generations of Tibetans, Tibetan-Americans, and the general community shared the day-long event.  Photo: ACTA


Traditional Tibetan foods were available for purchase.  Photo: ACTA


During a day-long Ache Lhamo, or Tibetan opera, a typical scene is picnics of traditional Tibetan cuisine, shared together as families during intermissions.  This production, the first of its kind in the United States, was supported in part by ACTA's Living Cultures Grants Program.  Photo: ACTA, 2011


Techung (right), one of the founders of Chaksam-pa, is a highly regarded performer who played the King.   Here during intermission he poses with Tenzin Tethong, former Tibetan cabinet minister.  Photo: ACTA


The epic was a tale that also reflected on the health of the water system and a village's dependency on its clear lakes for survival.  Here a glorious view of the San Francisco Bay from the Craneway Pavillion in Richmond is a vivid reminder of the timely potency of the tale and why the opera is such an enduring form over centuries.  Photo: ACTA