Tibetan Buddhist Saint Who Broke Good

A cast of creatives will stage a multimedia opera about a Tibetan Buddhist saint who began life as a mass murderer before finding redemption in religion. “Mila, Great Sorcerer” — presented at John Jay College on January 12 and 13 as part of the Prototype Festival — combines the centuries-old story of Milarepa with 14th and 15th century animated Tibetan and Himalayan images, culled from the Rubin Museum of Art, to tell a classic story in a new way, according to the director.

“We’re telling the story about the intersection of the ancient and the modern,” said Kevin Newbury. Last season, Newbury directed Gregory Spears and Greg Pierce’s “Fellow Travelers,” an opera about the McCarthy era anti-gay “Lavender scare,” based on Thomas Mallon’s novel of the same name.

The two-hour long production, created by Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden, relays the tale of the 11th century folk singer and spiritual teacher, who used “black magic” as a child to destroy his village after his aunt and uncle stole his inheritance. Later in life, under the guidance of a Buddhist teacher, Milarepa became enlightened and redeemed himself.

The artwork from the Rubin — including representations of the bhavachakram, the Tibetan Buddhist wheel of life — will fade in and out on a screen behind the actors on stage, Newbury said.

“It’s this really beautiful rich visual tapestry throughout,” he said.

The Tibetan-inspired costumes will also contribute to the show’s striking visuals, according to the director, who said that Milarepa will spend most of the show wearing contemporary clothes and wielding an iPad. He will not receive his own ornate robe until toward the end of the show, once he’s redeemed himself. Newbury added that Milarepa’s present-day costume helps make him a more accessible messenger.

“We wanted to have somebody taking us through the story through a modern lens,” the director said.

The performers will share the stage with the orchestra, who will use a combination of Western and Eastern instruments, including a collection of Tibetan instruments that composer Andrea Clearfield brought back from the Himalayas, she said. The composer said the bells, horn, cymbals, and drums will evoke the distinct spirits of the characters featured in the show, adding that she hopes the unique sounds will make attendees feel like they’ve been transported elsewhere.

“The deities in Tibetan Buddhism can have wrathful or peaceful qualities, so I was looking for instruments that could sound peaceful, otherworldly, magical, and also wrathful and fierce and terrifying,” Clearfield said. “I wanted the music to have the ability to transmit this sense of transformation and take us to another place.”

Newbury said the orchestra’s presence on stage throughout the show helps ensure that the music commands center stage and does not get lost amongst the show’s other unique features.

“When the orchestra is so unconventional and reflects the tradition, it’s fun to be able to see people play it,” he said. “It’s kind of like the music tells the story first.”