'Genghis Khan: the opera' rocks Mongolian capital

The thirteenth-century warlord Genghis Khan is best known as one of history's most bloodthirsty rulers, and at first glance appears an unlikely subject for a Jesus Christ Superstar-type rock opera. But in his native Mongolia, a rock opera has opened that gives the medieval empire builder the Genghis Khan Superstar treatment, claiming he had a softer, more appealing side which was overlooked.

"He was a good husband, a good son, and a good friend and I wanted to show him that way," said the lyricist, Dojpalem Ganzorig. "Not as a tyrant or someone with a bad character which is how some people see him."

Non-Mongolian historians beg to differ; they say Genghis and his Mongol hordes murdered about 40 million people as they created an empire from Asia to eastern Europe, raping and pillaging as they went.

But in Mongolia, locals revere the warlord as their most famous son, and the rock opera, called Chinghis Khan, (as he is known in Mongolia) has opened in Ulan Bator, the country's capital, to rave reviews.

It is the latest manifestation of a growing personality cult around the man who united warring tribes more than 700 years ago to forge one of the most effective armies in the world. "During Communism it was prohibited to talk about Chinghis Khan," Ganzorig said recently. "But he was in everyone's heart, everyone wanted to know him, be proud of him, and sing songs about him. Now after the democratic revolution we can do that." Communism, which discouraged talk of Genghis Khan for fear of stoking nationalism, collapsed in 1990, and Mongolians have moved to reclaim ownership of Genghis ever since. The rock opera is being staged now to coincide with the 800th anniversary of Mongolia's creation, which Genghis brought about.

The production is loosely based on The Secret History of the Mongols - an account of Genghis's life allegedly written by his generals. It features 40 dancers, 60 singers, a rock group, a 50-piece orchestra, and mixes traditional Mongolian throat singing and folk music with electric guitars.

Mongolia is a relatively poor country and Ulan Bator is not Broadway nor the West End so the budget is modest, just $60,000 (£32,000). Genghis has already been used to sell vodka, chocolate, and hotel rooms but the rock opera's composer, Taraa, insists the use of his life story is not a marketing ploy. "We are very proud of our heritage. We need an intellectual product with a Khan label."

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