“Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.”
This line from Victor Hugo came to mind the first time I heard the incredible story of Tibetan nun Ngawang Sangdrol.
At age 14 Sangdrol was jailed at the notorious Draphchi Prison for peacefully protesting against China’s invasion of Tibet. The prison has an estimated population of 1000 of which some 600 are thought to be political prisoners ranging in age from 18 to 85, many of which are captured monks and nuns.
While in captivity, Sangdrol was beaten with iron rods and rubber pipes, subjected to electric cattle prods on the tongue and six months in complete darkness in solitary confinement. She was also forced to spin and knit until her fingers were raw and blistered.
She told the BBC that the mental torture was even worse than the physical torture. “We had to denounce his Holiness the Dalai Lama and were not allowed to engage in religious practice.”
In 1993, while inside Drapchi prison, Sangdrol and 13 other nuns clandestinely recorded songs in tribute to their homeland and the Dalai Lama using a smuggled cassette player. This courageous group of women, who became known as the “singing nuns” of Drapchi, suffered extended prison sentences and harsh treatment as a result of their actions.
Fortunately, the nuns’ recording made it out of Tibet and the fame of these protest songs ultimately led to intercession by the government and to Sangdrol’s release. While her early release was officially on grounds of good behavior, her liberation was politically well-timed, happening only a few days before then-Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited George Bush’s Texas ranch. Sangdrol ultimately served 11 years of her full 23-year sentence.
“We recorded the songs because we wanted our families to know that we were still alive,” said Sangdrol, “and we wanted Tibetan people to know about our situation and our love for our country. We hoped it would reach our families, but we didn’t know for sure. I had no idea until I arrived in America that people all over the world heard those songs while we were still in prison. Now, it makes me feel so sad to listen to the recording, because I remember our friends in prison who died.”
“The Chinese have taken Tibet, our home,” read the lyrics to one song. “Tibetans are locked away in prison/Oh, fellow Tibetans, please come here/Buddhism’s holy land will be free soon.”
Despite years of inhumane treatment, torture and “patriotic education,” Sangdrol’s spirit remained strong.”Even when I first went to prison I knew this sort of torture was taking place,” she told the BBC, but “I was even angrier that an invader would come to our country and persecute our people.”
I had a rare chance to meet Ngawang Sangdrol at The Rubin Museum in New York City two weeks ago. During a tour of the collection, Sangdrol explained the cultural significance of some of the pieces in the museum, including the Tibetan Shrine Room and The Lukhang Murals.
Actor Richard Gere, who is an active supporter of the Tibetan Independence Movement and the Dalai Lama, also joined us for the tour and shared some of his own knowledge of Tibet. Gere is the co-founder of Tibet House, Chairman of the Board for the International Campaign for Tibet, and creator of The Gere Foundation, which awards grants to groups dedicated to the cultural preservation of Tibet and the Tibetan people. Because of his pro-Tibet activities, Gere is permanently banned from entering China.
While Sangdrol’s public appearance was an event not to be missed, it was the showcase performance of Peter Wyer’s new opera, Numinous City, inspired by the former nun’s story, that was the impetus for Sangdrol, Gere, myself, and a large crowd of enthusiastic music lovers to gather at the Rubin that evening.
Wyer says that the title of his opera, Numinous City, reflects how our lives are constantly shaped by unseen political, spiritual, and emotional forces. It is a reference to what becomes of us after trauma, when the ghosts of the past do not so easily depart.
Although the opera is still a work in progress, Wyer’s score and libretto are off to a stunning start. The narrative moves between the main character’s earlier experiences in prison and her current life working as a nanny for a couple in Brooklyn. (Sangdrol, like the opera’s main character, Tsering, also worked as a nanny in Brooklyn when she first moved to America).
Wyer’s comedic touches were a pleasant surprise in an opera about faith, trauma, and political oppression. The comic story line of the Brooklyn couple, marvelously sung by Jessica Miller-Rauch and Michael Krzankowski, offered some relief from the emotional intensity of the Tibetan scenes, which movingly dramatize Tsering’s walk to Lhasa in order to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet and her subsequent imprisonment and torture.
The most comic scene is set in Brooklyn on election night in November of 2004. John and Leila, the couple Tsering works for, are holding a party. When the television announces the re-election of George W. Bush, John belts out the longest, loudest F-bomb in opera history–a brilliant, extended F note that sets the scene for John’s political rant.
References to Guantanamo and Abu Graib add a layer of complexity to the narrative. We see that Tsering is living in America and is free from her prison cell, and yet she is still haunted by the torture she endured in prison, just as America is haunted by its own violent actions.
Wyer has interwoven Tibetan mantras brilliantly into his score, and some of the most exciting moments musically occur during the choruses. His inventive mixture of Western music with traditional Tibetan sounds and techniques result in compelling textures.
In a recent interview with American Opera Projects, Wyer discussed the blending of Eastern and Western musical traditions in Numinous City:
“My first priority with the work has been to try to convey in a very direct way the emotional content of the story, so, for example, I have a setting of the Green Tara Mantra: Om Tare Tutare Ture Soha–one of the ways I’ve heard it chanted is in a fairly specific 7/8 time but without specific pitch. I’ve taken that and used it with western harmony, adding tension to it as it relates to a scene from Sangdrol’s life where she was held for 6 months in an ‘open’ cell (no roof) with only a shirt despite the frozen conditions and with bright lighting to stop her from sleeping at night and where she was beaten during the day if she moved from her position. Sangdrol believes she survived this only by chanting day and night…
Many of the issues for me are cultural as much as musical – e.g. is this kind of sound appropriate for this scene? If I take these sacred texts and set them in Western style am I doing something sacrilegious? –
[In Kathmandu, Nepal]…I…had the privilege of meeting an 85 year old Tibetan master opera singer who demonstrated some of the many sounds and styles of Tibetan opera. I’ve also listened to Tibetan folk music and been to some extraordinary Tibetan Buddhist rituals where some of the music sounded to me distinctly like Ornette Coleman.”
In this showcase performance of Numinous City, Tsering was sung beautifully by Sara Heaton with Erica Moon acting out the part. Wyer explained that the use of both a singer and an actor for Tsering’s role was a device that it made it possible for the singers to concentrate on the music, which is still new and in development. Although the split roles were effective and appropriate for this particular opera, Wyer expects the parts to be merged into one in the final version of the opera. The composer is also in the process of determining how Sangdrol’s original protest songs will be woven into the opera.
For a work-in progress, I thought the staging of Numinous City was particularly effective. Music stands cleverly substituted for prison cell doors, video was well-integrated into the performance, and a simple telephone cord coiled around Tsering made a powerful political statement about her emotional and physical state.
Wyer is fortunate to have the support of American Opera Projects, an organization that excels at producing new works by contemporary composers. AOP, which has supported projects like Tarik O’Regan’s opera Heart of Darkness and Alvin Singleton’s Brooklyn Bones, is skilled at staging these types of showcase performances of works in progress. Numinous City is the latest opera in the organization’s First Chance series, which presents performances of new operas in an intimate format that allows conversation between artists and the audience.
Development of Numinous City has been commissioned by ROH2, the development arm of the Royal Opera House, and is being supported by The Rubin Museum, the International Campaign For Tibet, as well as AOP.
As Wyer describes in the below video, his goal is to create a piece of engaging theater, but he also hopes to bring the story of Sangdrol and the struggles of the Tibetan people to a larger audience. Tibetan music and language are both in danger of dying out. Wyer’s project is an opportunity to keep them alive and to call attention to the suffering and loss that so many people have endured in the country.
The drama in Sangdrol’s life did not end after her release from prison. Some time after arriving in the US, a former monk, who had met Sangdrol years earlier at a protest, began calling her regularly. (They had both been incarcerated in Drapchi, but had never crossed paths there.)
When the former nun and monk finally saw each other again during a visit in India, they fell in love. They are now married and live together in the US with their young son. Sangdrol continues to travel and talk about her personal experiences, urging political leaders and individuals to support the people of Tibet.
“In the prison I was not allowed to do religious practice,” Sangdrol told the BBC, “but now I have the opportunity, and it’s nice now.”
If you would like to help Pete Wyer complete this opera based on Ngawang Sangdrol’s remarkable life, you can make a donation to Numinous City here.
This project has all the right elements–a talented composer, a compelling story, political relevance, the involvement of several respected organizations like AOP, the Rubin, the Royal Opera House, and the International Campaign for Tibet, plus the support of Ngawang Sangdrol herself. Consider giving if you can.
If you’d like to learn more about Numinous City, you can watch Pete Wyer discuss the project further in this video, which was filmed during his recent visit to Nepal: