A large and curious audience packed Emory University’s Cannon Chapel on Saturday afternoon for the performance of “Sukyi Nyima” (“Radiant as the Sun”), an example of traditional Tibetan folk opera known as Ache Lhamo or simply Lhamo. The performance, which lasted somewhat longer than the anticipated two hours, was necessarily truncated for the occasion, as Lhamo can last for as long as several days. “Sukyi Nyima” is one of about eight common stories in the traditional Lhamo repertoire.
Tibetan musician and dancer Tashi Shazur, a.k.a. Techung, who has lived in exile in San Francisco since 1989 and has been an artist affiliate at Emory since 2011, directed and choreographed the production. It involved 12 Tibetan performers portraying more than 30 roles, some of them playing as many as five.
Lhamo is performed in an open space without scenery, but with one conspicuous requirement: the prominent presence of a statue or scroll painting of the originator of Tibetan opera, the 14th-century Buddhist adept, polymath and civil engineer Thangtong Gyalpo. The term “folk opera” is used because the first troupes were amateurs, often farmers, artisans and tradesmen who closed up shop once a year to take part in local performances. Later, professional opera companies became necessary to perform for the Dalai Lama in Lhasa.
The stories are grounded in the Buddhism that is at the center of the traditional Tibetan way of life, but ”Sukyi Nyima” also has a plot that would befit a Verdi opera: a beautiful heroine, an evil queen, a stubborn and misguided king, poison potions and a treacherous entertainer. It also contains significant comedy and satire. It’s based on the legendary Indian play “Shakuntala,” first translated into Tibetan in the eighth century and completed by the eleventh century. A complete synopsis of ”Sukyi Nyima” can be read here online.
In general, the action unfolds in a series of tableaux, with narration between. In this performance, a deliberate decision was made to have Emory Senior Lecturer Tara Doyle present the narrations in English to help the audience follow the story. The singing was done in a vibrant, reedy and sustained style with intricately ornamented articulations, with melodies that rise and fall within a scale that is essentially, but not exactly, a Western pentatonic scale.
Although the vocal style, which seems to use primarily the upper range of the principal singers’ voices, may seem unusual to Western ears, Tibetan folk opera is much more realistic in movement and characterizations than better-known Asian theatrical styles such as kabuki and Peking opera.
The traditional Tibetan costuming was colorful, often including masks, with many elements exactly like the costuming seen in a black-and-white archival photo of a Lhamo performance in Tibet in 1938, in particular the black mask of a “divine hunter” and the rainbow-hued, wing-like headgear of a “celestial dakini.” Animals are mostly portrayed with full head masks, as was one old man. The headpiece for the deer that was Sukyi Nyima’s mother was notably bizarre with its wild, large eyes, open mouth and fang-length cuspids.
Painted drums and large dome-shaped cymbals accompanied the action. Each type of character was personified by a musical phrase, as well as a dance step. Choreography for ensemble dances was in unison, somewhat in the manner of a line dance, with the dancers singing at the same time. Dances were marked by details of footwork and gestures made with hands and forearms. There was occasion for an acrobatic twirl or two executed by male dancers, a kind of rotating flip of the body, a movement that was parodied in the celebratory ending by a pair of actors in a yak costume.
The opera was divided into two parts, and during the intermission a group of Emory students sang and danced Tibetan songs they learned in workshop with Techung, while two played damnyen, a Tibetan six-stringed lute.
Last to be mentioned, but certainly not least in importance, Tibetan author and playwright Jamyang Norbu formally introduced the performance. He was present at the last folk opera performed in Lhasa for the Dalai Lama, though he was only a year old at the time; the year was 1950. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army would invade Tibet that October.
Norbu was director of the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts when many of the performers in this production were students there. And his leadership role in advocacy for Tibetan independence, often controversial, perhaps also sheds light on why he was invited by Emory to introduce the opera. It marked his fifth visit to the school.