Tibetan opera troupe continues traditions despite funding challenges

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Saturday was World Cultural Development Day. In Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China’s Sichuan Province, artists are keeping the 600-year-old art of Tibetan opera alive.

Tibetan opera dates back to the 14th century. It was registered as a national intangible cultural heritage by the Chinese State Council in 2006, followed three years later by an international listing by UNESCO. It is celebrated as an auspicious artistic tradition during different Tibetan festive occasions including Tibetan New Year, Shoton Festival and Saga Dawa Festival.

Tibetan opera is considered a “living relic of traditional Chinese culture”. It follows a fixed three-part format. The eight traditional plays on the life of Buddha and Buddhist scriptures remain central to the performances, although nowadays some Tibetan groups write their own plays. The Tibetan opera props are simple, but the sets are majestic.

Nature becomes a stage, with snow-capped mountains, blue skies and meadows as a backdrop. With only a drum and cymbals for accompaniment, the audience can sit on the floor to enjoy the performance.

In Xinduqiao County, Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, a troupe of farmers and herdsmen rehearse for a performance marking the birth of Buddha. Tibetan opera can last two or three days, but this time they only have 10 minutes.

Zhaxi Jiangcuo is the leader of the group. He told CGTN that Tibetan opera used to be performed in squares, but now it is more often performed on stage. “We can adapt Tibetan opera to different durations and locations, but we keep the most basic characteristics,” he said.

Because not everyone in the audience understands Tibetan, they skipped the second part which contained a monologue and chants in Tibetan. They focused on the dances performed at the opening and closing of the play, which are interpretations of Buddhist ceremonies.

Their shows were well received. But Zhaxi worries about the future of Tibetan opera. He said: “We don’t have enough funds, the 25 members of the group are not paid. Many talented people prefer earning money to practicing and learning Tibetan opera.

Zhaxi is 53 years old. They have younger members like Gama Duoji, who is 23 years old. He plays an old man called “Zhaxi Xuba” in the series, who usually appears in the third act praying for good fortune. Duoji said he enjoys performing very much, Tibetan opera is part of his life and he will continue this unique musical tradition in the future.

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