In his professional headshot, Georgy Vasiliev looks a little bit like a 1940s film star with honey-brown hair, golden eyes and a picture-perfect tuxedo.
But he’s not a relic from Hollywood’s golden era – in 2014, the Russian tenor is one of the hottest talents on the international circuit. He’s about to make his Australian debut in Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour: Madama Butterfly, singing the role of Butterfly’s callous lover, the American B.F. Pinkerton.
“It is one of my many debuts in this project,” Georgy says. “It’s my first time in Australia, my first Pinkerton, and also the first time on an open-air stage, which is the most interesting and unusual for me!”
Georgy is blown away by the beauty of the outdoor setting.”The stage with a bamboo forest, a sun and moon, real cars and a boat, and a nocturnal sunrise on Sydney Harbour with the Sydney Opera House as a background – all this makes the production extraordinarily beautiful!”
But singing in the open air is not without challenges: “To sing through a microphone with the wind blowing your sound away, hearing the orchestra through an earpiece and watching the conductor on a monitor is all new for me,” Georgy explains.
He is one of those opera singers that thrive on new productions and interesting experiences. He has all of his dream roles in his repertoire already. “What I do dream about is to participate in lots of new, interesting productions with great teams, who give us something to tell the audience. Like (creative team) La Fura dels Baus, is doing with this production in Sydney!”
When I ask Georgy how he feels about playing the villain in the tragic tale of Madama Butterfly, he is quick to contradict me and defend his character. “Puccini and his librettists were experts in the incandescence of passion – we know this from their earlier operas. They make Pinkerton a real scum in our minds. But when Pinkerton returns, we see that he is deeply distressed, and we believe that he really loved Cio-Cio-San, and maybe still loves her!”
As tenor roles go, he’s far from the worst, Georgy says. “He didn’t want to hurt Butterfly. He never yells at her or humiliates her (like Alfredo in La Traviata), and he’s never indifferent to her (like the Duke in Rigoletto).”
Those who know the story of Madama Butterfly might disagree with his sympathetic reading, but Georgy is determined to find the nuances in Pinkerton’s character, and present a more complex picture to the audience. “When I prepare a new role, I try to observe how my character will develop. I try to find all the small details in the text and in the music to work out what he is really feeling and thinking as he does or says something, how he changes from scene to scene.”
With this approach, Georgy sees Pinkerton as the type of American who feels himself as a proprietor of the world – he proclaims “American values” but has no real personality. “But soon, he sees Butterfly and begins to change. It surprises him very much – he is suddenly fond and sensual, romantic and excited! He falls in love with her.”
“One can interpret the story in different ways,” he adds. “Puccini’s music leads us to the bottom of our own hearts, so we can feel the character based on our own experiences. I do it this way.”
Georgy himself is a family man, with a wife, two sons and a newborn daughter. His life demands a lot of travel, and he delights in taking his family along where possible. “Sometimes we can travel together and it seems that I’m at home everywhere, when my family is near! I wish they could be here with me for these months, but Sydney is so far from Moscow!”