The Tibetan people call their folk opera "Lhamo," meaning "Sister Fairy." It employs singing and dancing to tell stories.
Tibetan opera dates back about 1,400 years. Compared with the few other folk operas of Chinese ethnic minorities, it has the longest history. According to Tibetan historical records, King Songtsan Gambo greatly admired the costumes, music and dancing of the Tang Dynasty introduced to Tibet by Princess Wencheng of the Tang Dynasty when she married the Tibetan king. He arranged for the training of 16 beautiful girls in a combined art form of the Tang-style and Tibetan folk music and dancing in order to entertain the princess. Later, this entertainment developed into a more clearly defined form of dancing, singing and facting.
In the eighth century, King Khrisong Detsan became a follower of Buddhism under the influence of his mother, Princess Jincheng. He invited the Lotus-Born Monk from India to spread Buddhism in Tibet and built the Samye Monastery. At the inauguration ceremony, a pantomimic dancing show based on the deity worship ritual of the Bon religion (a native religioin of Tibet) and Tibetan folk dances was staged.
By the turn of the 15th century, folk singing and dancing had developed to a considerable extent in Tibet. This period produced a legendary figure, Thongdong Gyalpo, a high-ranking monk of the Kagyu Sect. In order to build an ironchain bridge, he spent three years trying to raise money, but failed. Then he selected seven beautiful and clever girls from among his followers and organized a performance team. He adapted Buddhist stories into simple-plot song and dance dramas and directed them himself. The team performed his dramas in different parts of Tibet, and in this way money was raised for the construction of the bridge. The dramas were the embryo of Tibetan opera.
During the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama, in the 17th century, this performing art was separated from religious rituals and became an independent dramatic form dominated by singing and dancing, and in particular used flamboyant masks. It spread from Shannan, Xigaze and Lhasa to other parts of Tibet, and further into Sichuan Province's Batang, Litang and Garze, as well as into neighboring India and Nepal.
Tibetan operas reflect the Tibetan people's lives of various periods. The original scripts from which the operas were adapted have remained popular readings among Tibetans for centuries. There are about 20 traditional programs, but unfortunately some of the play scripts have been lost, and only the names, and sometimes the plots, are known today. The remaining repertoire of the traditional programs centers on historical tales and legends, represented by Princess Wencheng; romantic fables, represented by Dhama King Norsang; and social life, represented by Miss Langsha.
Over the centuries, Tibetan opera has formed a three-part stage format. In the prelude, known as "Wenbadun," Wenba men in blue masks, two Jialu men and several fairies take the stage, performing religious rituals, and songs and dances, introducing the actors and actresses, and explaining the story line of the opera that is to follow. The second part is the opera itself. The third part is an epilogue which features a blessing ceremony and is also an occasion for the presentation of hada (silk ritual greeting scarves) and donations from the audience.
Today, changes have taken place in the structure, singing, dancing, masks and stage format of Tibetan opera, and an orchestra, backdrop, lighting and make-up have been added. Besides being performed in the open air, Tibetan operas are also performed on indoor stages. The stage format can be either traditional or modern. In the traditional format, a narrator explains the plot of the opera section by section as the opera is being performed episode by episode. The performance of an opera can take a whole day, or even two or three days. The modern format divides an opera into several acts and the total length of the performance is kept within three hours. Both modern make-up and traditional masks are used.
Tibetan operas call for skills in singing, dancing, elocution and martial arts. The singing is sonorous and marked by drawls at the end. Frequent use of ensembles and choruses both on-and off-stage adds more impact to the singing. The dance movements are exaggerated and very energetic. Scenes that occur in everyday life, such as when two persons meet or when they bid farewell to each other, are also projected in a dancing style. The primitive simplicity and vigor demonstrated in the singing and dancing is effectively set off by typical Tibetan landscapes on the backdrop.
Tibetan opera has four schools today. The Goinba School, originating in Ngamring and Lhaze counties, features high-pitched and sonorous singing, mixed with singing and dancing from the Doi area, and traditional acrobatics. The Gyanggar School is popular in Rinbung, Gyangze and Xigaze. It is characterized by an ancient, rugged and solemn style derived from Lamaism. The Xangba School from western Tibet shows the influence of local folklore and of the Gyanggar School. The Gyormolung School from the Shannan and Lhasa areas was the most recent school to be formed. Creative in singing, choreography, stunts and comic effects, it is the most developed among the four schools, and has formed a jubilant style with rich and colorful singing and dancing. It is the most influential and most popular of the four schools. Today Gyormolung troupes are active in different parts of Tibet. They are even popular in Sichuan's Garze region, India and Bhutan.
Beginning in the reign of the fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century, troupes from across Tibet gathered at the Zhaibung Monastery to present their best performances in the seventh month by the Tibetan calendar every year. In the reign of the seventh Dalai Lama, the venue moved to Norbu Lingka. On the occasion, whole families and even entire villages come to the site to watch the performances day and night. Meanwhile, they also enjoy themselves by singing and dancing. This festive season is known today as the Shoton Festival, and lasts for about a month and a half.