The Tibetan Book of the Dead

The Great Liberation Through Hearing

Libretto by Jean-Claude Van Itallie

Duration: 95 min.

Voices: Soprano, 2 Mezzo-soprano, 2 Tenor, 1 Baritone, 1 Bass

Instrumentation: l.(dbl. Picc.) Cl.(dbl.B.Cl.) Hn. Tpt. 3Perc. Pno. Hp. Vln. Vcl. Cb.

Premiere: June 14, 17, 19, 25, 27, and 29, 2014. Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Stephanie Blythe, mezzo-soprano; St. Louis, MO.

Commission: Commissioned by Houston Grand Opera and The American Music Theatre Festival 1995

Purchase and Rental: Theodore Presser Company

Click on each item to see the full contents:


Based on Jean-Claude van Itallie’s play after the Buddhist teachings of the same name, The Tibetan Book of The Dead leads us through the stages we experience after death and our transition into the next life. It is at once a ritual, an oratorio in 17 set numbers, a requiem, a warning, and a theatrically-staged wake. The 8 characters include a baritone (“The Reader” leading the journey towards death, enlightenment, or rebirth), a soprano (first as “The Dying” and then as “The Dead”) and another soprano, two mezzos, two tenors, and a bass, who play the various energies, demons, temptations, memories, and deities.


When Ricky Ian Gordon’s opera of, The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” written with librettist and playwright Jean Claude Van Itallie, bowed in the spring of 1996 at Houston Grand Opera, and The American Music Theatre Festival, these are some of the things which were said about it.”Gordon’s music is an eclectic, colorful and sassy stew of American pop, modernism and post-Puccini lyricism- a rhythm and blues torch song one minute, a sinister rendering of the nursery rhyme “This Old Man” the next. But it all meshes. The score surprises at every turn, but it never jolts. Moreover, Gordon draws a huge range of color and texture from his 11 instrumentalists… 

Gordon is a superb composer of songs-soprano Camellia Johnson closed her San Antonio recital last year with a magical Gordon set- and his vocal lines in this opera are unfailingly lyrical, sensuous and comfortable on the voice. When the dead woman finally sings-she soars in an aria of grand breadth and freedom.”

—Mike Greenberg, San Antonio Express News

“It’s a requiem that takes into account rebirth, which composer Ricky Ian Gordon handles with a litheness, occasional sly humor and an artistry that announces a creative rite of passage.Though highly melodic, the score has few traditional tuneful hooks, preferring to create a continuous musical organism that has many of the mercurial qualities of Olivier Messiaen. The music goes whatever direction it’s needed with a harmonic freedom and purposefulness… you’re aware of having taken an important musical journey.” 

—David Patrick Stearns, USA Today

“Music serves innumerable functions. It allows us to weep, to rejoice, to mourn, to celebrate. Or, in the case of Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead, a liberation through hearing, to exorcise demons. At its Houston premiere, the cathartic impulse and function of the work resonated radiantly….it revealed to Houstonians a composer with a facile but compelling gift for song. His opera was, to me, another exciting moment in the accelerating emergence of a collective American style of art music rooted equally in the country’s vernacular and cultivated traditions.

Gordon is a gifted composer. His opera contained several regally radiant songs- extended works that are a new format drawing from the sophisticated Broadway style of, say Stephen Sondheim, and the traditional aria form of opera.

The entire work cosseted feelings. The musical accompaniment was felicitous.

Gordon’s style was distinctive.”

—Charles Ward, Houston Chronicle
“Ricky Ian Gordon is best known as a composer of songs that are singable in cabarets, on concert stages, just about anywhere. He treats words-weather by Emily Dickinson or Langston Hughes-with tender loving care, wit, and once in a while, sass, but I can’t remember a saccharine or maudlin tune from him. All of which made him the right man to make an opera out of Jean Claude Van Itallie’s 1983 ritual-play The Tibetan Book of the Dead or How Not To Do It Again. Gordon, who used a composer’s prerogative and raised the ante of the subtitle by changing it to the more music evoking a liberation through hearing.It’s emotional Honesty and increasingly affecting score will win lots of admirers.
Gordon’s ease with tonal tunes and harmonies stood up nicely against his shrewdly placed spikes of dissonance.” 
—Leighton Kerner, The Village Voice

“Ricky Ian Gordon writes in the idiom most common among contemporary composers: eclecticism. This approach has the obvious advantage of freeing the artist from a stylistic straitjacket, but also carries the considerable risk of producing work that is meandering and formless. Gordon avoids that pitfall in The Tibetan Book of the Dead by stringing together spacious melodies, jazzy riffs, Stravinsky-like neo-classicism and even a bit of the blues within a unifying tonal landscape.The most compelling aspect of Gordon’s music is his boldly colorful orchestration. More than a third of the pit orchestra consisted of percussion instruments, including xylophone, glockenspiel, timpani, snare, cymbals, tambourines, wood blocks, and gourds. A small string section, horn, trumpet, flute, clarinet, piano, and harp completed the lively ensemble. Gordon’s ability to balance this unusual combination of timbres is masterful. His sound is never overtly percussive, but fluidly adjusted for the theatrical needs of the opera. Gordon uses a somber kind of lushness as well as a glittery brightness to reflect corresponding dramatic elements in the libretto.” 

—Peter Burwasser, Philadelphia City Paper
Gordon could write glorious music to the telephone directory if he wanted to… the music soars, and we’re reminded of just how magnificent Gordon’s music can be. A major piece of new music.
—Cary Mazer, Philadelphia City Paper

A succinct one-act piece…Gordon has written tuneful things that range through blues and gentle rock, cowboy rhythms and pop. The final chord-unresolved-provides a glimpse of eternity- one of the memorable things in this score. 

—Daniel Webster, The Philadelphia Inquirer
Gordon’s music has potency and power and is especially notable for the sympathetic and incisive support of the text. His score is accessible, even breezy at times, and yet always responsive to the words. Gordon is not hesitant to use vernacular, even pop music idioms in adding additional texture and clarity to the meaning of the text. There are also passages of surpassing beauty…
—Brian Caffall, Philadelphia Gay News

Articles & Additional Press


m. 163 should be 8va

“The Lama is the Baritone who is the reader”
Measure 21, misprint, should be 8vb so you sing, D# D# D# and than jump an octave to D#
Measure 28,-29, also a misprint, should be 8va

Rick Ian Gordon & Jean Claude van Itallie:

Photo of Ricky Ian Gordon & Jean Claude van Itallie

Opera Grand Rapids

Feb. 9-10, 2024

Photos by Colin Howe

Houston Grand Opera

Premiere Production, 1996

Photos by Jim Caldwell.