How Mongolia went wild for opera

Why are so many Mongolians winning international singing awards? To find out, Kate Molleson travelled 1,000 miles across the country to meet latest star Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, drinking mares milk, sleeping in yurts and recording its vocal masters

Last summer, a video from Cardiff went viral in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. It showed opera coach Mary King moist-eyed during the finals of BBC Cardiff Singer of the World. Who had moved her to tears? Mongolian baritone Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar. Towering, broad-shouldered, with a huge smile and a mighty voice, the 29-year-old sang Rossini, Verdi and Tchaikovsky and charmed everyone, including the judges, who declared him joint winner of the coveted Song prize. There was something so imposing about the sound, King said. Contained and glorious. Its very unusual to find this combination of presence, power and effortlessness.

Hear Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar sing

Ariunbaatar doesnt have a typical background for a contestant in one of the worlds most prestigious opera contests. He grew up in the traditional Mongolian way, living in yurts with his nomadic family, herding cattle on horseback across the steppe. As a child, he rode some 60 miles a day, and he was always singing. He won a place at university in Ulaanbaatar but dropped out after two years when he couldnt pay the fees, became a taxi driver and one night got chatting to a customer who happened to be the chief of police. Long story short: he joined Ulaanbaatars police ensemble, worked his way back to university, then onwards to the grand opera houses of Russia and Europe.

That backstory tugged at my curiosity so much so that three months later I was on a flight to Ulaanbaatar with a radio producer and suitcase of audio equipment. I had the same basic preconceptions many westerners share about Mongolia: Genghis Khan, Gobi desert, furry camels, wild horses, fabulous throat singers. My guidebook described a proud post-communist nation, once the greatest empire the world has ever known, now a population of three million landlocked between two global superpowers, Russia and China. It is rude to turn down an offer of fermented mares milk, I read, for it is considered a gesture of friendship.

But the books couldnt tell me was why opera is such a big thing in Mongolia right now. Ariunbaatars win was no fluke: in 2015, he took first prize in the male-vocalist category of Russias Tchaikovsky competition. And there are others. Amartuvshin Enkhbat, Mongolias first-ever entrant to Cardiff, reached the finals in 2015. And last years contest also included an impressive contribution from tenor Batjargal Bayarsaikhan.

A bigger stage from left, Amartuvshin Enkhbat, Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar and Batjargal Bayarsaikhan. Composite: Alamy

Mongolia won independence from China in 1921 and became the first satellite state of the Soviet Union. Its traditional singers were sent to Russia, East Germany and Poland to study opera. I expected to encounter awkwardness around that history the fact this music was a Soviet import but not so. Opera caught on in Ulaanbaatar. The Mongolian State Academic Theatre of Opera and Ballet is a handsome peach-coloured neoclassical building on the main square of the capital. It opened in 1963 with a heavyweight of Russian opera: Eugene Onegin.

Today, the theatre employs 285 people and hosts more than 100 performances a year. To date, Mongolias own national opera – a love story called Three Dramatic Characters by B Damdinsuren has been staged 2,022 times. Opera might have been planted by the Soviets, but it took root. Why? One answer is geopolitics. For a small nation, explains Tuya Shagdar, a young anthropologist I meet in Ulaanbaatar, in order to catch the attention of the world, we need to promote ourselves through culture.

Supernatural expert throat-singer Batzorig Vaanchig. Photograph: Facebook

Shagdar stresses that Mongolia does not want to appear to be simply a cultural annex to Russia or China, and hints that beating the Russians at their own game is particularly enjoyable. Another answer is that Mongolians are incredible singers, the tradition dating back centuries. Like opera, throat singing requires decades of specialist training to create multiple pitches at the same time. Hearing an expert up-close is an almost supernatural experience. We recorded Batzorig Vaanchig, one of the very finest, and the subtlety and colour of his overtones was astounding. He made his voice sound like the wind, then the snow, then an eagles wing slicing through the air.

To get to the throat-singing source, I travelled 1,000 miles west from Ulaanbaatar across the Gobi desert to Hovd province. Its an awesome landscape. I spent several nights in a yurt on the shores of a vast lake watching cranes migrating south from Siberia, the glacier-tipped high Altai mountains on the horizon. No roads meant gruesome car sickness. Every time we stopped at a yurt to ask directions, I was fed boiled mares milk and lamb fat to calm my stomach.

When we arrived at Chandmani, a tiny village, there was a party: vodka, more mares milk, and throat singers of all sizes and shapes. A grand master sang ancient verse with his granddaughter on his knee. A choir sang pop covers with a synthesiser backing track. It was surreal and glorious. What better mark of a tradition in rude health than a gaggle of six-year-olds belting out Born to be Wild in amassed overtones?

Life on the land Ariunbaatar Ganbaatar, centre in pale blue shirt, at a family gathering in their yurt. Photograph: Kate Molleson for the Guardian

Almost everyone I spoke to connected the countrys singing culture with the landscape. Traditional ballads known as long songs translate into verse the contours of the land, its long straight sightlines with jagged mountains like decorative ornaments on the distant horizon. Im nervous about any claim that where you are born determines what sounds you are able or entitled to make feeling that this could tip into to ethnic exclusivity, or plain exotification. Yet I cant deny the incredibly open and natural sound that Ariunbaatar and other Mongolian singers seem to make.

One musicologist I spoke to, Khatuchuluun Buyandelger, was unequivocal about the reason behind his countrys embrace of opera. Its down to physical stature, he says, and thats down to landscape, food, clean air, even historical narrative. Remember Genghis Khan? Mongolians certainly do. We have the force not only to conquer the world, Khatuchuluun says, but also to sing for the world.

International wins have made Ariunbaatar a celebrity at home. Politicians hope his career will secure Mongolias position on the opera map portraying it as a modern, cosmopolitan nation. He says he has no desire to leave Mongolia. His family are still nomads on the steppe, still herd cattle on horseback, still pack up their yurts to follow new pastures. Being with them on the land is what gives me inspiration to sing, he says. Wherever I am, that is what I imagine when I sing.

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