Choegyal Norsang: The United States' First Full-Length Tibetan Opera
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.
For more information & videos of the event visit http://www.chaksampa.org.