600-year-old Tibetan Opera Survives Changes
   2011-05-10 19:47:24    Xinhua      Web Editor: Zhangjin

Boys wearing blue masks and bright yellow blouses make quick, whirly dance moves while girls on coronals gently wave their long sleeves, accompanied by simple drum beats.

This is a classic opening to a Tibetan opera. For 600 years it has been performed mostly by part-time farmers-turned-actors in an open space in front of festive village crowds, but now it is entering a college classroom.

Together with 17 classmates, 22-year-old Tseten Dorje has to practice this style of singing and dancing for at least two hours each day and, sometimes, for an entire whole day.

They are the first group of undergraduate students majoring in Tibetan opera at the Art School of Tibet University.

For centuries, the lyrics and melodies of the songs and dance movements in Tibetan opera were passed down from older actors to their apprentices.

Another Tseten Dorje, a 76-year-old Tibetan opera actor unrelated to the previously mentioned university student, did not enroll in a university course to learn about Tibetan opera. Instead, he learned from his parents.

He was born into a drama troupe and first went on stage at the age of eight.

"There were no textbooks on how to perform. It all depended on the memory and understanding of old actors," said the old man.

Compared to traditional teaching methods, the collegiate way of teaching the ancient art aims to not only train actors but also to foster future researchers, said Losang Choniyi, dean of the art school.

In 2008, the university opened the first undergraduate and postgraduate programs in Tibetan opera.

"Students will have a comprehensive understanding of Tibetan opera and traditional art rather than just performance," Losang Choniyi said.

Besides special training in singing, dancing, chanting and narration for Tibetan opera, the younger Tseten Dorje has taken classes on body training in modern dance, the history of Tibetan opera, music theory and Tibet's folk music and dance.

"Body training is the toughest because I started at the age of 19. It is really painful but it will lay a very good foundation for dances," he said.

A bachelor's degree also seems to ensure a decent future.

"I come from the village where the Gyormolung School of Tibetan opera [the most popular school] originated. Several folks in my family are actors. But my parents strongly opposed my picking up this career because it does not look like a stable job with good pay," the younger Tseten Dorje said.

After he enrolled in the university, his parents stopped actively opposing his decision but still did not show much support, he said.

But Losang Choniyi admitted that the performances of these college students are not as good as the performances of those trained by the old school because they have started later in life and spent less time learning.

Traditionally, the ideal starting age is around 10 years old. After four to five years, that person should be ready for the stage and, after another four years, a performer should be prepared to fill a lead role, said the older Tseten Dorje.

Other notable changes have occurred in the ancient art, besides the methods of educating young actors.

Before the peaceful liberation of Tibet in 1951, there was only one professional opera troupe which was allowed by the local government to tour across Tibet. The other troupes were made up of part-time farmers, serfs and monks who only performed at festivals such as Shoton Festival, or Yogurt Festival.

In 1960, the only professional troupe was transformed into the government-run Tibetan Opera Troupe and long-dominated the market.

But, in the past decade, increasing demand for commercial shows has led to a boom in private opera troupes.

Tibet now has more than 500 private troupes. An increasing number of them have recruited professional actors.

The Narey Tibetan Opera Troupe was founded by 18 farmers in the Lhasa suburb of Narey in 1969 and now has 45 full-time actors.

"Many Lhasa people hire us to perform at weddings. Pubs and restaurants also want us to entertain tourists," said Migmar, the head of the troupe.

At these commercial shows, they perform episodes of traditional operas with folk dances and short, modern comedies.

The government-run Tibetan Opera Troupe has even made bold efforts to introduce stage sceneries and lighting as well as more musical instruments to accompany the operas.

In 2005, it also produced a new version of the traditional opera "Princess Wencheng" with the China National Peking Opera Company, combining Tibetan opera with Peking opera.

"I am not against change. In its history, Tibetan opera has changed from one generation of actors to another," said the older Tseten Dorje. "But we should first have a full understanding of old things before starting to reform."

In 2006, Tibetan opera was included in the state list of intangible cultural heritage by the Chinese government and three years later in the UNESCO world heritage list.

After retiring from the Tibetan Opera Troupe, the older Tseten Dorje has coached actors with the Narey Tibetan Opera Troupe.

With his help this season, the troupe is rehearsing the play "Princess Wencheng," one of the eight most famous Tibetan operas.

"If we finish this one, our troupe will be the first private troupe able to perform all eight operas," Migmar said.

Heated competition among private troupes made Migmar determined to learn more about traditions.

"Facing so many newcomers, in what way can we improve ourselves and get the advantage? A good one is to offer the most authentic Tibetan operas," he said.



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