The First Tibetan Opera Performance in the United States
"The Religious King Norsang"
Chaksampa, the Tibetan Dance & Opera Company presented a full seven hour performance of "The Religious King Norsang" at the Craneway Pavilion, in Richmond, California on Saturday October 22, 2011. This was the first time a Tibetan opera was performed in its entirety in the United States. The event was dedicated in support & memory of all the recent Tibetan Freedom Martyrs.
The opening remarks were given by Tenzin Tsedup, President of the Tibetan Association of Northern California & Tenzin Tethong, Former Prime Minister. A brief historical overview of Tibetan Opera was presented by Cynthia Josayma. She introduced Thangtong Gyalpo, the Patron Saint & founder of Tibetan Opera, who 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 Norsang Opera describes how a Buddhist Kingdom prevails and also serves as an environmental cautionary tale as well as a revolutionary love story.
Tibet is the water shed of the majority of Asia's greatest rivers—sending cascades of this precious resource into India, Southeast Asia and China. The Norsang story begins with the plight of a non-Buddhist kingdom abandoned by the water spirits, as they have been neglected and abused by the evil king, thus leaving the region with drought & disease. A noble hunter from a good Buddhist Kingdom is given a wish fulfilling jewel which he offers to the water spirits. They are pleased with his gift & advise him to wait for his reward. Soon, a beautiful goddess descends from the heavens to bath in their immortal waters. He captures the goddess and brings her as an offering to Prince Norsang.
The second half of the opera focuses on the influence this pure goddess has on his kingdom. Norsang already has five hundred wives from neighboring kingdoms, each bequeathed to him for political purposes, who all become jealous of the new wife. Together, they seek revenge by sending Norsang to fight useless wars while they try to kill the new Queen, who flees back to the heavenly realms. The Prince finally understands the deceptions of the jealous wives and becomes clear in his heart that he must wins back the pure goddess to be his one Queen. He is successful in convincing her to return and is ultimately rewarded by his father with the rule of the kingdom.
This ancient tale has a contemporary message today, as water resources are increasingly polluted and political leaders are often embroiled in external wars while their nations suffer. The timeless message that Norsang has brought to audiences over the past seven hundred years, is to honor and protect fresh water sources and rule with a pure heart, holding the care of the nation first.
Chaksampa, the Tibetan Dance & Opera Company was founded in 1989, in San Francisco, California, and is considered is the most successful professional performance group outside of Tibet. Tsering Wangmo, Artistic Director did a phenomenal job organizing this landmark event. All the members are trained actors originally from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, in Dharmasala, India, the first generation trained in exile by the great Tibetan master performers, following the Chinese communist invasion of their country. They perform regularly today in the Bay Area and across the United States, as well as hosting an annual summer camp for Tibetan children to keep their culture alive.
The Craneville Pavilion where Norsang was presented is situated on the San Francisco Bay with full views of the Golden Gate Bridge, was a perfect setting for the day. The daylong event was attended by numerous Tibetan families and western friends, bringing beautiful hand-woven carpets to sit on and favorite picnic foods along with thermoses of butter tea.
Jampa Yangchen attended with her mother, Mrs. Surkhang, who is 93 years old. Ms. Yangchen noted that "Seeing Chaksampa perform Norsang was really touching for both of us. We are originally from Lhasa and both my mother & I grew up attending the annual opera festival at the Norbulinka. For us, to see Norsang again after so many years made us so happy & thankful to be reconnected with our cultural past. Our prayer is that Chaksampa continues to preserve this unique art form and that Tibetan opera can be regularly performed so that the younger generations can enjoy them and learn of the richness of our heritage."
Another woman Ellen Spitalnik said "This was the first time I had ever seen a Tibetan Opera, and I felt instantly transported to Tibet. The performance, as well as the music & dance were riveting and to take part in the daylong cultural event along with a multi-generational audience was an extraordinary experience."
Chaksampa brought three gifts to the Bay Area audience through their performance. The first gift was a cultural bridge that crossed time & geography bringing the ancient Buddhist tales from Tibet to California. The second gift was an internal bridge that linked the timeless story to how Buddhist culture can bring a positive influence to both the environment & nation. The third gift was connecting us all with the historical Thangtong Gyalpo, the first "Chaksampa" who inspired both the opera form as well as the original bridges that brought today's audience together to participate in this historical event.