On our last day in Bhutan, our plane out of Paro – the only international airport in the country – was delayed by more than three hours. This was not good news. We had been away from our homes and families for almost three weeks, and despite an unforgettable, wonderful experience in Bhutan, most of us were ready to get our three-day journey home started and over as quickly and painlessly as possible.
After some grumbling and brief panic about missing connections in Bangkok for some passengers associated with the Opera Bhutan project, we settled into our seats in the airport waiting area, still high on the easygoing, friendly and happy nature of the Bhutanese way of life.
And then wonderful things began to happen. A group of male UTEP vocalists serenaded the waiting area with an a cappella rendition of “For the Longest Time,” an ironic and fitting selection. The airport staff served everyone tea and then gave us a full lunch right there in the airport while the rain pattered down on the lone runway outside.
Most importantly, the people associated with the historic Opera Bhutan project – vocalists, instrumentalists, directors, stage managers, sound engineers, UTEP staff, and alumni and friends on tour in Bhutan – had the opportunity to talk to each other; to recount our experiences and share our new love of this tiny Himalayan kingdom where Internet access is scarce and unreliable, and face-to-face communication is more important; where natural beauty is appreciated and cultural identity, relationships and traditions take priority over modernization.
Our plane from Paro to Bangkok – the first of five flights on our journey back to El Paso – did eventually take off, and as we flew east out of the majestic Himalayas and above the clouds toward the International Dateline, we wondered how we could bring a little piece of Shangri-La back to our Bhutan on the border.
The Opera Bhutan project originated in the mind of Aaron Carpenè, a musician and conductor who contacted Preston Scott, adviser to the Royal Government of Bhutan on a range of cultural projects, in 2004 to ask if an opera had ever been performed in the country. The answer was no, but the timing was not right for the Bhutanese government to pursue it.
In 2008, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. hosted the largest presentation of Bhutanese life and culture outside the kingdom. Both Carpenè and officials from The University of Texas at El Paso attended the event, curated by Scott. It was then that Carpenè and Scott learned about UTEP’s connection with Bhutan, which began almost 100 years ago when the first dean’s wife admired photos of Bhutan in a National Geographic Magazine photo essay by British diplomat Jean Claude White. Kathleen Worrell convinced her husband, Dean Steve Worrell, that the Bhutanese architecture would fit well in El Paso. The University’s original buildings, located on Fort Bliss, had burned down and would be rebuilt on a new site. The dean agreed with his wife’s suggestion and UTEP’s signature Bhutanese look was born.
In 2009, Carpenè was invited to present a recital of music from the George Friderich Handel opera Acis and Galatea for Bhutan’s prime minister and other government officials. Later that year, Carpenè and Scott brought Italian stage director Stefano Vizioli into the fold and began planning the Opera Bhutan project. UTEP became involved in 2010.
Three years later, in late September 2013, Carpenè, Vizioli, Scott, UTEP representatives and about 40 others from 10 countries converged in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capitol, to realize the dream that had begun nine years earlier.
For several UTEP students in the Opera Bhutan chorus and orchestra, the trip to Bhutan was their first time on an airplane. Thirty-one of us, including seven UTEP staff and faculty, boarded the plane at El Paso International Airport Sept. 29 for a 60-hour journey that included stops in Chicago; Toyko; Bangkok; Paro, Bhutan; and finally Thimphu, where we arrived by bus on Oct. 2.
After settling into our hotel, learning our way around downtown Thimphu and getting advice on drinking tap water (don’t), stray dogs (most are harmless but they sometimes bark all night), and where to buy authentic Bhutanese clothing and handicrafts, we attempted to start the jet lag recovery process and readjust our internal clocks by 12 hours before rehearsals started the next morning.
At the first rehearsal, we were greeted by a dozen other foreigners working on the project who had already been in the country for a few days, as well as Bhutanese dancers, musicians, carpenters and painters. Karma Wangchuk led the Bhutanese construction crew. He is the architect who has consulted with UTEP on our lhakhang, a Bhutanese building constructed for the Smithsonian Folklife Festival that was donated to the people of the United States and resides on the UTEP campus as a cultural center. Wangchuk and his team, along with technical directors and audio engineers from the Smithsonian, were busy constructing a wooden stage and tents in the courtyard of Thimphu’s Royal Textile Academy. Since performances on a stage with an orchestra were unknown in Bhutan, the Opera Bhutan crew had to construct everything, from speaker and monitor stands to orchestra risers and music stands.
The cast and crew shipped or traveled with all of the orchestral instruments, including a harpsichord in a special box created by Associate Professor Don Wilkinson, D.M.A., and a cello that got its own seat on the plane, audio equipment and microphones, costume pieces and props, makeup and hair accessories, and opera programs. While the workers sawed wood by hand for the stage and tents, the orchestra and chorus rehearsed nearby.
The instrumentalists and singers knew their music before arriving in Thimphu, as did the four lead vocalists – Francesca Lombardi Mazzulli (Italy), Thomas Macleay (Canada), Jacques-Greg Belobo (Cameroon) and Brian Downen (United States) – but no one knew the choreography and staging until those last two weeks of preparation in Bhutan with Vizioli.
“I wanted to capture the atmosphere of a traditional Bhutanese performance, where the action is central and the audience is arranged around the performing space,” Vizioli explained in his vision for the opera, which would be the first in the world to incorporate Bhutanese dance, music and cultural elements. “While honoring aspects that belong to both the traditions of Bhutanese and Western performing arts, my aim is that both sides focus on sharing common feelings, languages and aspects of human nature in a higher concept of brotherhood through art, music and knowledge.”
In the meantime, costume designers Luigi Piccolo of Italy and Rinzin Dorji of Bhutan were in a room downstairs sewing costumes and fitting them to the cast members.
The UTEP students spent most of their time in Bhutan rehearsing, but even walking to and from rehearsals and finding lunch and dinner on their own helped them get to know the city of about 100,000 where they lived for two weeks. Because Opera Bhutan was official government business, everyone associated with the opera was free to explore Thimphu on our own without a guide. That is not the case for most tourists visiting Bhutan. Unless you are Bhutanese or Indian, you must be part of an organized tour to visit the country, which includes a fee of $250 a day per person that covers food, lodging, transportation and a guide.
Since we weren’t part of a package tour, we were able to experience a more authentic Bhutan, especially when it came to food. Tour groups typically eat buffets designed with foreign tourists in mind. The UTEP group had the opportunity to taste authentic Bhutanese food, including the national dish, ema datse, a combination of very spicy green chilies and a white cheese sauce made from yak’s milk. We also ate yak ribs and burgers, potatoes and other vegetables in yak cheese with the signature spicy chilies, red rice, momos (dumplings filled with cheese or beef) and butter tea — a salty tea that tastes like a stick of butter was melted in it. The food was fresh, organic, local and very affordable – a typical meal cost less than $5.
We also had the opportunity to shop at the many local textile and handicraft vendors selling scarves, painted tapestries called thangka, masks representing various Buddhist figures and animals, and even phallus ornaments and keychains. Painted phalluses were visible on many homes outside of the capital city as a symbol of good luck and to ward off evil spirits, although most phalluses in Thimphu had been removed before the fifth king’s coronation in 2008 because of the expected international media attention.
On the last day before our departure, the students had the opportunity to hike up to Taktshang Goemba, or Tiger’s Nest monastery, one of the most iconic and picturesque monasteries in Bhutan. The 3,000-vertical-foot climb to an altitude of more than 10,000 feet was slow and tiring, but the view and the monastery itself were magnificent. Like our trip to Bhutan, the journey was long and hard, but we helped each other get through it and were rewarded at the end with an unforgettable experience in a beautiful, spiritual place.
Years of work came to fruition Oct. 12 with the world premier of Opera Bhutan’s Acis and Galatea. An international audience of close to 350 attended, many dressed in the traditional gho (for men) and kira (for women), including UTEP staff, friends and supporters.
It is nothing short of amazing, and a tribute to the great planning of a large production team over the last few years, that almost 70 people from all over the world can convene in an unfamiliar place halfway around the globe for most of us, and in less than three weeks, pull off a brand new musical production in a country that has never before seen, or had the equipment to produce, an opera before.
The opera was beautiful, both musically and visually, especially the touching last scene when Galatea turns her dead lover Acis into an everlasting river. The blue silk cloth “river” that was cut, dyed and sewn together by UTEP student Monica Cabrera and Assistant Stage Director Justin Lucero billowed up to create flowing ripples like those of the mountain rivers that rushed through Bhutan’s valleys.
Queen Mother Ashi Sangay Choden Wangchuck, a wife of the fourth king, attended with other members of the royal family and spoke to the cast and orchestra on stage after their performance. She thanked them for putting on this special event and said she was moved to tears at the end.
She was not the only one in the audience with teary eyes that afternoon. The crew, staff, American and foreign guests, and even some of the Bhutanese schoolchildren who saw the open dress rehearsal the day before were touched by the beautiful music, colorful costumes and movements of the Bhutanese dancers and tragic, yet hopeful plot of the ancient story.
I was disappointed to learn that we would not be allowed to videotape or photograph the final performance since members of the royal family would be in attendance. But as the final notes of the opera resonated in the Royal Textile Academy courtyard, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Karma Wangchuk, the Bhutanese architectural consultant, earlier in the week. He was explaining some of the main tenets of Bhutanese Buddhism to me, and what he said seemed like a perfect analogy for our Opera Bhutan experience.
He compared this opera production to the Buddhist tradition of creating a sand mandala. The Buddhist spends days or weeks creating an intricate, colorful sand design. When it is completed, he destroys it, showing that everything in life is transitory.
The Opera Bhutan team has spent years planning, raising money, rehearsing, and building a stage and set for an opera that was performed in Bhutan only one time. After Oct. 12, the stage was deconstructed, the tents taken down and the rental equipment returned. The more than 70 people who made the opera possible returned home to their respective countries.
During our talk, Karma also said that maybe the most important part of this opera isn’t the opera itself, but the journey to create it. What really matters is the process of putting it together, collaborating with people around the world and forming new relationships, solving problems together and creating something that has taught us all a little bit about each other.
The last leg of our return journey, an evening flight from Houston to El Paso, began just as the sun was going down and ended as the last flashes of bright orange sky melted into the horizon. Our two-hour UTEP Orange sunset as we travelled west across Texas on Oct. 15 was a beautiful welcome home and end to our journey.
As the plane pulled into the gate at El Paso International Airport, cheers erupted from the passengers – 80 percent of whom were Opera Bhutan participants. We were home again, but we were not the same people who had flown out of that airport three weeks earlier. We were changed – we had traveled to the other side of the world and knew firsthand just how big the Earth is, yet recognized that it was getting smaller every day. Even the most remote countries, like Bhutan, had been influenced by Western culture – most Bhutanese speak English, many wear jeans and T-shirts after work hours and their radios often play Western music.
But we had been influenced by Bhutanese culture, too. We saw the value in turning off our electronics and talking with people face-to-face. We experienced what it felt like to slow down, take a deep breath and appreciate the things and people around us. And, being so far away from everything we knew, we were able to recognize what parts of our lives were most important to us, and what we could live without. We had brought home a little piece of Shangri-La, and it would stay with us forever.