Baritone in the Mongolian Steppes

In our electronic age today, the almost stereotyped concept of “globalization” has brought upon an irreversible impact on virtually every aspect of culture. Even Mongolia, which many observers, before 1990, called the world’s most isolated country, has been subjected to similar effects. In recent years, I have had the privilege and good fortune of getting to know an operatic baritone from the Mongolian steppes whose life seems to have been colored by not just the gift of music, but also globalization.

Enkhbat in a Mongolian performance
of Aida, December 2010

As a boy, Amartuvshin Enkhbat sang traditional Mongolian “long songs” in which each syllable was held for an extended period of time, with the slow pace intended, in part, to calm the horses he rode and the animals he tended in the steppes. He also mastered the art of throat singing, in which two different pitches were produced at the same time. Born in the remote northeastern province of Sükhbaatar in 1986, Enkhbat had an audience consisting of sheep, goats, horses, and the grandparents who raised him. As nomadic pastoralists, the Mongolian herders have strong and fond feelings for their animals. The beginning section of the half-historical, half-mythical Secret History of the Mongols — the only surviving primary source of the records on the Mongol empire — bolsters the identification of Mongols with animals,[1] for example. Like most of his peers, Enkhbat attended elementary and secondary schools in Sükhbaatar and, even without any training, repeatedly won singing competitions at local festivals. Despite the delight he took in serenading the animals and in his success at such competitions, he never conceived of a musical career. Like his grandfather and father before him, he assumed that he would pursue a life as a herder and could not conceive of any other work. His talent would most likely have not been recognized had he not, by chance, at the age of eighteen, visited the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, whose population had virtually doubled with the decline of the herding economy in the 1990s and which encountered problems with traffic, sanitation facilities, water supply, and horrendous air pollution. Encouraged to perform at a children’s festival, Enkhbat so impressed the judges that one of them immediately had him enrolled to study opera at the University of Arts and Culture, which had just been founded in 1990.

The Russian teachers and advisers who had been instrumental in introducing opera and ballet in Mongolia had departed with the collapse of Communism in the Soviet Union and in Mongolia. The University of Arts and Culture, now dominated by Mongolian teachers, had barely begun to develop a curriculum. Thus Enkhbat’s formal training, which consisted of several years at the University, was limited, compelling him to study and learn, for the most part, on his own. He still cannot read music well. Nor does he speak any language other than Mongolian. In an interview conducted at the ironically-named New Amsterdam Café in Ulaanbaatar, he pointed to his ears when asked how he learned his operatic roles. From midnight until morning, he plays records or listens to performances of celebrated European and American singers — including baritones Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Igor Gorin as well as tenors José Carreras and Plácido Domingo — on YouTube before developing his own style.

An operatic career in the land of Genghis Khan seems unlikely. Yet Mongolia, as the second Communist country in world history, was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union from 1921 to 1990, and one byproduct was the introduction of opera…

An operatic career in the land of Genghis Khan seems unlikely. Yet Mongolia, as the second Communist country in world history, was heavily influenced by the Soviet Union from 1921 to 1990, and one byproduct was the introduction of opera — the art that Wagner envisioned as Gesamtkunstwerk: the “total art,” an “universal” or “ideal work of art.” Russian teachers and performers flooded into Mongolia to teach their Mongolian counterparts. By the 1980s, Mongolia had a flourishing operatic culture. The Opera and Ballet Theater’s location in Ulaanbaatar’s central square, near the Parliament building, attests to opera’s high status during this time. The fall of Communism and the ensuing economic problems brought hard times to the arts, but Bold Sergelen, the dynamic manager of the Theater, has tried to raise funds and to recruit talented performers to restore some of the opera’s past glory. Sergelen, a principal ballerina during the glorious days of the Soviet-supported Mongolian ballet, had been recognized as a potentially outstanding dancer and at the age of eight was sent to the Russian city of Perm for ten years of demanding ballet training. After her career ended in her late thirties, she turned to administering her beloved Opera and Ballet Theater, a difficult task, as we shall see. One of the most pleasing aspects of her new career is the discovery of Enkhbat, whose career she has gradually nurtured.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Mongolia’s move to a market economy in the early 1990s have had an almost disastrous influence on Mongolian culture and, specifically, on Sergelen’s efforts to preserve the opera and ballet. Abiding by the views of foreigners from such international financial agencies as the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank, the State adopted policies of privatization, minimalist government, austerity, and less funding for education and arts and culture. Such reductions in public funding have damaged the State Opera and Ballet Theater. Considering such declines, it is all the more remarkable that the Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Boston Ballet have recruited Mongolian dancers, and that Enkhbat has begun to embark upon an international career.

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  1. “It asserts that the union of a bluish wolf and a doe produced Chinggis Khan’s ancestors and then proceeds to provide a lengthy genealogy, leading ultimately to Yisügei, Chinggis’ father and a member of the Borjigin (or Gold) lineage.” — See Rossabi, Morris. The Mongols: A Very Short Introduction. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. 6.

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