Mila, Great Sorcerer

January 2019

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About the Show

Work-in-Progress Concert | Opera

Produced by New Vision for Opera

Folk hero, singer, and spiritual teacher, Milarepa has been venerated for one thousand years. But as a child, directed by his mother, he wields black magic against the aunt and uncle that stole his inheritance, and destroys his entire village. His remorse sends him on a life journey from mass murder to enlightenment. Set to lush orchestration melding Eastern and Western sounds, his transformation and redemption into the most revered teacher of Tibetan Buddhism offer hope and spiritual wayfinding to all who regret acts of consequence and seek higher ground. 

Composed by Andrea Clearfield
Libretto by Jean-Claude van Itallie & Lois Walden
Directed by Kevin Newbury
Conducted by Manoj Kamps
Featuring the Knights

Commissioned by New Vision for Opera

Co-presented with Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice


Show Run Time 2 hours and 30 minutes with intermission
Post-Show Conversation on Jan 12

Image by Maciej Wojtkowiak / Alamy Stock Photo

Artist Bio

Andrea Clearfield (Composer) is an award-winning composer of music for orchestra, opera, chorus, chamber ensemble, dance, and multimedia collaborations. Clearfield creates deep, emotive musical languages that build cultural and artistic bridges. She has been praised by the New York Times for her “graceful tracery and lively, rhythmically vital writing”, the Philadelphia Inquirer for her “compositional wizardry” and “mastery with large choral and instrumental forces”, the L.A. Times for her “fluid and glistening orchestration” and by Opera News for her “vivid and galvanizing” music of “timeless beauty”. Her works are performed widely in the U.S. and abroad. Among her 150 works are eleven large-scale cantatas including one commissioned and premiered by The Philadelphia Orchestra. Recent works are inspired by Tibetan music fieldwork that she conducted in the Nepalese Himalaya. She was recently appointed the Steven R. Gerber Composer in Residence with the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia for their 2018-19 season. Dr. Clearfield was awarded a 2017 Independence Foundation Fellowship, a 2016 Pew Fellowship in the Arts and fellowships at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Bellagio Center, American Academy in Rome, Yaddo, Ucross, Wurlitzer Foundation, Copland House and the MacDowell Colony among others. Her music is published by Boosey & Hawkes, G. Schirmer, Hal Leonard and Seeadot and recorded on the Bridge, Sony, MSR, Albany, Crystal and Innova labels. Passionate for building community around the arts, she is founder and host of the renowned Salon featuring contemporary, classical, jazz, electronic, dance, and world music since 1986. 

Jean-Claude van Itallie (Librettist), born in Brussels in 1936, fled the holocaust with his family to America in 1940. He graduated Harvard in 1958, and was a seminal force in the explosive 1960's Off- Off-Broadway. He wrote the landmark anti-Vietnam War play America Hurrah (a trilogy: Interview, TVMotel), and, as Playwright-of-the-Ensemble of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater, wrote The Serpent. He's author of over thirty plays including War, Bag Lady, The Traveler, Light, Struck Dumb, the Doris Plays, Eat Cake, Fear Itself, and Ancient Boys. His one person shows – War, Sex,  Dreams and Confessions and Conversation. His newest play -- The Fat Lady Sings -- opens at La MaMa in spring, 2019. A student of Tibetan lama, Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche, van Itallie is librettist of the opera Tibetan Book of the Dead, music by Ricky Ian Gordon – based on van Itallie’s play Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not to do It Again. Itallie's translations of Chekhov's major plays are often produced in US major theaters. He's taught acting, writing, and meditation workshops at Princeton, NYU, Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Columbia, Essalen, Shantigar and Naropa, among other places. He wrote The Playwright’s Workbook and Tea with Demons, games of Transformation. On his farm in Western Massachusetts, he is founder/director of Shantigar Foundation for Theater, Meditation, and Healing

Lois Walden (Librettist), American writer, singer, songwriter, librettist, record producer, performer, and teaching artist. Author of the novels One More Stop (Arcadia, 2010), and Afterworld (Arcadia, 2013), Lois Walden worked as a television writer in Hollywood with many major artists including Dionne Warwick, and Jane Fonda. As founder of the gospel group, The Sisters of Glory, she performed at Woodstock ’94 and at the Vatican for the Pope. She co-produced the group’s critically acclaimed album, Good News in Hard Times, for Warner Bros., as well as writing and co-producing her solo album, Traveller. She was the lyricist for American Dreams Lost and Found, based on the book by Studs Terkel. Her life and music have been profiled on CBS Sunday Morning and Good Morning America. Her debut novel, One More Stop was a Lambda Literary Awards finalist and a Waterstones New Voices finalist. For the past 15 years Lois has travelled America for The Acting Company teaching teenagers in small towns and inner city schools how to tap into their emotions and understand their world through classic theatre and literature. She is currently co-writing the libretto for the Buddhist opera Mila, Great Sorcerer, and working on her third novel, Beyond Expectation. In addition Lois Walden is the writer for the non-fiction project High School Yearbook, a book, website and social media program empowering young people with cancer and connecting them and their families with others going through similar circumstances throughout the world.

Kevin Newbury (Director) is a theatre, opera, and film director based in New York City. Kevin has directed over sixty original productions and his work has been presented by many opera companies, festivals, and symphonies including the Park Avenue Armory, Carnegie Hall, The Kennedy Center, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Houston Grand Opera, The Santa Fe Opera, Barcelona Liceu, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Minnesota Opera, The San Francisco Symphony, L’Opera de Montreal, The Prototype Festival, Urban Arias (DC), Bard Summerscape, Portland Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Philadelphia Orchestra, Seattle Opera, Glimmerglass Opera, Cincinnati Opera, The Virginia Arts Festival, and The Wexford Festival in Ireland, among many others. Kevin is especially committed to developing and directing new work. He has directed over two dozen world premiere operas and plays, many of which were subsequently published or recorded. Recent world premiere highlights include Spears/Pierce’s Fellow Travelers (Cincinnati Opera, New York Times Best of 2016), Todd Almond’s Kansas City Choir Boy (starring Courtney Love, PROTOTYPE/NYC and Boston, LA and Miami), Puts/ Campbell’s The Manchurian Candidate and Cuomo/Shanley’s Doubt (Minnesota Opera), and Lopez/Cruz’s Bel Canto (Lyric Opera of Chicago, broadcast on PBS’ Great Performances and recently nominated for the 2016 International Opera Awards: Best World Premiere). Kevin’s first two short films, Monsura Is Waiting and Stag, have screened at a total of forty film festivals and have each won festival awards. Both of his films are now available online. His third short, Epiphany V, a classical music video, will be released in mid 2017. Other upcoming projects include the world premieres of Bates/Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs (Santa Fe Opera, Fairouz/Hanif’s Bhutto (Pittsburgh Opera and Beth Morrison Projects), and Fellow Travelers (Lyric Opera of Chicago).

Artist Statement

Milarepa’s story of extreme personal transformation is emotionally gripping, healing and hugely important in our divisive world. It is also personal to me, having had a relationship with the Tibetan plateau, the land, the people and the culture. Although elements of Tibetan ritual music and folk music inform and are woven into the fabric of Mila, Great Sorcerer, I consider this work to be an American opera.

For nearly a decade I have been engaged in documenting the music of a remote, restricted Tibetan region in the northern Nepalese Himalaya, Lo Monthang. This area, near Tibet, is not far from Milarepa’s birthplace and an area where he very likely visited.

With an anthropologist and ethnomusicologist named Katey Blumenthal, I recorded the last remaining royal court singer, Tashi Tsering. His songs had been passed down aurally for hundreds of years, but not yet documented or notated. Under the auspices of the Rubin Foundation in NYC, Blumenthal and I recorded the indigenous garglu (court) and troglu (common) folk songs of Tashi Tsering and other singers in the area, completing the recording project in 2010. Our work is part of a larger initiative to help preserve the traditions of this ancient horse culture. Our recordings are part of the University of Cambridge World Oral Literature Project, dedicated to documenting endangered languages before they disappear without record.

The treks and fieldwork led me to build a new body of creative responses. In 2008 I wrote Lung-Ta (The Windhorse) for large chamber ensemble and field recordings in collaboration with visual artist, Maureen Drdak and choreographer, Manfred Fischbeck, commissioned by Network for New Music. Lung-Ta was presented to the Dalai Lama as an initiative for world peace in 2009. Kawa Ma Gyur (The Unchanging Pillar - 2010) for chamber ensemble and treated field recordings was also commissioned and premiered by Network for New Music. Tse Go La (At the Threshold of this Life) a cantata for double chorus, chamber orchestra and digital audio incorporated some of the songs from Lo Monthang. The work was commissioned by The Mendelssohn Club and Commonwealth Youthchoirs as a way of bringing these songs to the U.S. A grant from the American Composers Forum made it possible to involve the Tibetan community of Philadelphia in the performance and in workshop, sharing traditional Tibetan song and dance. More recently, Rabsong Shar (2016) for soprano and chamber orchestra was commissioned by The University of Arkansas. The work deals with memory, loss and change and how song can honor and help preserve a culture and its language.

As a result of these experiences and this new body of work, I was inspired and moved to create my first opera on Tibet’s most venerated yogi, Milarepa. It was certainly auspicious that after meeting Jean-Claude van Itallie at a performance of his terrific play on the Tibetan Book of the Dead, he shared that he and Lois Walden were creating a libretto on the life of Milarepa.

- Andrea Clearfield, Composer


As a playwright and Buddhist, for some thirty years I’ve wanted to delve into and dramatize the amazing life of Tibet’s great folk hero, singer, and daring spiritual teacher Milarepa. From the records we have of a millennium ago, he was likeable, eccentric, appealing, a popular singer with a sense of humor and a social conscience – maybe it’s not too great a stretch to call him a Bob Dylan of his day. Mila’s journey of redemption is exemplary, available to apply in our own lives. What could be more useful?

Here is what I always burned to ask Mila, and that the Villagers and Monks ask in the opera: how on earth did you manage in a single lifetime to transform yourself from a teenage mass killer into a teacher/singer so good-humored and enlightened that just to be in your presence or hear about you is a blessing? Really, we need to learn how to do that. How can we change our lives and outlook when we want to? Will you teach me, at least by example? Did you have help? Who were your teachers? How hard was it? What techniques did you use? Can I use them now a thousand years later? Can I do what you did, and if so, how?

- Jean-Claude van Itallie, Librettist


In our current age of escalating violence and anxiety, the story of Milarepa offers a parable of redemption. In our production of Mila, Great Sorcerer, we view the ancient legend through the lens of 21st Century America.

Mila’s Tibetan village becomes a forgotten industrial town in the American West and Mila commits his acts of violence in an unnamed contemporary war using drones and other instruments of modern warfare. Mila returns home, like so many soldiers today, haunted by what he has seen and what he has done.

Jean-Claude van Itallie and Lois Walden’s focused libretto uses the language of Buddhist legend, set to Andrea Clearfield’s gorgeous Tibetan-inspired music, while the visual world of the production is thoroughly contemporary. I envision our opera as an ensemble-based, in which the entire cast transforms the space throughout the performance, reflecting Mila’s spiritual transformation. We reframe Mila’s story in the characters that are recognizable and real to us.

What can we learn from Mila’s story? Can violent people change? How does a soldier redeem himself after he has killed? All of us today, Buddhist or not, are searching for some kind of inner peace and calm in the face of violence. Mila, Great Sorcerer, is both thrilling music theatre and an antidote to the current age of anxiety.

- Kevin Newbury, Director



Andrea Clearfield, Photo by Sanny Leviste

Jean-Claude van Itallie, Photo by Barbara Beaussacq

Lois Walden, Photo by Brian Braff


Gerald W. Lynch Theater

524 W 59th Street

Artist’s Praise

“Ms. Clearfield’s consonant and melodic style, and the ease with which she moves between graceful tracery and lively, rhythmically vital writing, suits these instruments and players perfectly…”
— Alann Kozinn, The New York Times

“Clearfield is a natural musical dramatist.”
— Joshua Rosenblum, Opera News Magazine

“The audience is drawn to participate with the actors in a kind of eucharist."
— Walter Kerr, The New York Times