Norbu Tsering la was the greatest opera master in the history of Ache Lhamo (Tibetan opera — literal meaning “sister goddess”)
He was born in 1927 in Lhasa, Tibet, and had dedicated his entire life for Ache Lhamo. His father was an opera performer, and believed to be the most famous female character performer. His five brothers were all opera performers. They were all in the famous opera company Kyomolung. In old Tibet, only four of the twelve opera centers could perform at Norbulingka Palace, and Kyomolung troupe was one of them.
Few years before 1959, the Tibetan government in Lhasa sent Ghen Norbu la to Kalimpong (an important Tibetan trading port) to study. Ghen la was so popular and loved so much that people made a song for him:
Lapa has gone to India,
That was an order by the government of Tibet.
Folks don’t you worry as he will return,
Whining may only put obstacles on his life.
Ghen la’s stage name was “Lapa”. His desciple, Opera master Sonam Phuntsok of Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts says that he do not know exactly how Ghen la got that name. One version is that after performing the role of a young prince, Ghen la got the nickname “Lapa” as he had to sing a song starting with “La-yi …” This “La-yi” became “Lapa” later on. Another version is that when he was very young, he was imitating older artistes and since he couldn’t really sing properly, he sang “La.. la.. la.. ” and not the real words. So he was called “Lapa”, the one who sings “La.. la.. “
In 1959, Norbu Tsering la had fought against the Chinese invaders in Lhasa, and was captured and imprisoned for eight months. Later he was released because the Chinese authorities planned a Shoton in 1960 in which he was asked to perform.
In 1961, he escaped to India. After a few years in exile, he started teaching Tibetan opera in 1967 in Kalimpong. Several years later, he was invited to teach Opera in the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA), which was then called Tibetan Music, Dance and Drama Society, which is based in Dharamshala. He became opera master, and had taught 12 different traditional operas at TIPA. In 1996, he retired after serving nearly 30 years in TIPA but remain the source of inspiration to all the artistes and observers of Tibetan opera culture.
Norbu la was a story teller, a very kind teacher and a veteran Opera master. All of his family lived at TIPA, including his six children, one son and the rest daughters. The son and the oldest daughter became his students and TIPA artistes. After prolong illness, he passed away at Delek Hospital on Thursday, 14 March 2013 and was cremated in Dharamshala on 16 March 2013. He was 86.
Since Tibetan opera is the root of Tibetan art and culture. In exile, Gen Norbu la’s larger than life contribution to preserve the Tibetan culture remain exemplary to many among his followers and disciples.
In independent Tibet there were 12 big opera companies. There were four big ones: Gyangara, Chungpa, Shangpa, and Kyomolung (the biggest center), and eight smaller ones. Because of Norbu la, there are now ten opera centers in exile in India. There is also one in San Francisco, ChaksamPa) [Iron Bridge], formed by ex-TIPA artistes.
Ache Lhamo, which is also called Lhamo, is the creation of a 15th-century Tibetan saint Thangtong Gyalpo. It is said that the saint wanted to build iron bridges over many big rivers in Tibet. He started the Ache Lhamo to raise funds to build the bridges. Some of the bridges are said to be in use even today. It is also said that Thangtong Gyalpo created Ache Lhamo to impart Buddhist teachings through the performing arts.
Credit: Sonam Phuntsok http://www.tibetsun.com/opinions/2013/03/18/a-dream-of-performing-at-norbulinga