If you knew the story of Georg Ots and all of the beginnings and the end you would not believe it. A man who openly confessed his love to life and hoped so much for its reciprocity was at times not sure that the feeling was mutual. And it is understandable.
I never knew who Georg Ots was until a couple of months ago, but I have always known what a talented but a lonely and craving man is – a lonely man that lives in all of us. That’s why this piece I dedicate to Georg Ots – a legend, a talented artist, an opera and pop singer, whose velvet baritone penetrated straight into the soul of millions of men and women and gave them hope for a better future.
Nowadays, anything you can find out about Georg Ots and his life is from the words of an older generation and his friends. But also, through a biopic called “Georg” directed by Peeter Simm which tells the story of the rise and struggle of a singer through the eyes of his second wife Asta Saar. It is a bitter sweet story about love that conquered all, but did not withstand the test of time.
I watched the movie which starts with the sounds of the waves at the bay of Estonia where Georg wins a medal in swimming. In 1939 he was still not aware what awaited him and that in just a couple of years his life would change forever driving him away from home and closer to what he had always wanted to do – singing. Even though his father was convinced that his son was not as talented as every generation in the Ots family and would rather his son had become an engineer, Georg did not care what was expected of him – he loved life and embraced it even more when face to face with resistance.
In order to tell this story, I need to start from the very beginning – the details that Asta could not have witnessed herself – Georg’s childhood and youth. I learned about Georg’s past through extensive research seeking to understand how this talent had formed and how his perseverance had grown with time.
Georg Ots was a fourth-generation singer and musician. Georg’s great-grandfather – Tynu Ots – was a virtuoso violinist, his grandfather Hans Ots played the piano and organ and conducted the choral group. Georg’s father Karl Ots – graduated from the St. Petersburg Conservatory and soloed in the Theatre called “Estonia”.
Georg was born in the spring of 1920 in Soviet Petrograd, but soon after his birth, the family moved to Tallinn. He absorbed music and singing very quickly and his musical education started from early childhood. Georg was enrolled into the French Lyceum, where he sang in the choir, learned to play the trombone, piano and flute.
A 6-year-old Georg was noticed by his teacher while performing the Italian aria, which he memorized while listening to his father. It turned out that in the “repertoire” of the little boy there were dozens of opera arias he learned to perform while listening to his dad.
But no less than music, young Georg was also enticed by sports. As a teenager, he became interested in fencing and basketball, became a member of the swimmers’ club and in 1939 won the republican competition in 1,500 meters.
After graduating from the French Lyceum, Georg thought about his future profession. His father, familiar with the struggles of the opera vocalist’s path, recommended choosing “a more impressive profession”. Georg studied at a military school and aimed at the profession of an architect. In 1941, the young man graduated from the first course of a technical University in Tallinn.
At the age of 21, Georg was mobilized to Red Army and sent by boat to the city on the Neva, where an army unit was being formed. In the Gulf of Finland, 180 km from Leningrad, the ship Siberia was attacked by a German bomber. A young minesweeper saved Georg from imminent death. Many drowned that day and as per the biopic Asta was coincidentally also one of the ships and was also saved by one of the sailors.
Georg was then brought from Leningrad along with mobilized men to the Chelyabinsk Region and from there to Estonia where he led an anti-tank platoon. According to many sources his service ended a month later: when a lucky incident brought Georg together with the artistic director of Estonian ensembles, who was selecting artists to perform in front of the defenders of the homeland.
According to Asta’s memories depicted in the movie, Georg was approached by Russian Intelligence with a clear task ahead of him – to sing.
Thus, Georg’s artistic career started. He debuted as a solo artist in a military hospital, where he sang several songs to the wounded.
As part of Estonian ensembles, Georg travelled to Siberia and the Caucasus, to Central Asia and the White Sea: artists gave more than 400 concerts. In the spring of 1944, the talented vocalist Ots was noticed and praised by eminent vocal teacher Nazari Raysky.
In the autumn of the same year Georg was hired by the theatre in Tallinn, where his father worked. The theatre world shocked Georg. He was initially trusted by small parts in operas and operettas, but soon enough he was allowed perform big.
In the late 1940s, after the reorganization, the theatre changed its profile to a musical one. The season opened with the opera “Eugene Onegin”, where Georg was given a role in the reserve squad. But due to the illness of the first-line vocalist, Georg had to perform Onegin arias, which he brilliantly did. For this performance, Georg was awarded a state prize, and in 1950 he became a leading soloist of the theatre.
A year later, the audience saw the artist in Herbert Rappaport’s drama “The Light in Coordi,” where he played the main role. For work in the cinema, Georg was awarded the second prize from the state.
In the post-war years, the vocalist added pop songs to his repertoire and over time, he had over fifty thousand pop songs under his belt – from patriotic to humorous.
In 1953, the famous Soviet theatre director Alexander Viner entrusted Georg with the difficult aria of Demon in the opera. “To feel” the role, Georg studied the paintings of Mikhail Vrubel and the works of Mikhail Lermontov. Later, Georg admitted that the time he had spent preparing for this part was the most interesting and demanding in all the years of his theatrical career.
1950-60s were the years of the triumph, when Georg toured the cities in the Soviet Union and Europe. In the mid-1960s a release of a musical film by Yulia Khmelnitsky “The Circus Princess” brought an even bigger fame to Georg. His songs performed as Mister X were and are still sung by the older generation who remember and cherish them.
The repertoire of the Estonian-Russian baritone included compositions in 20 languages. Georg insisted on performing folk songs in the original language so that the soul of the song would not be lost in translation.
Before the war, Georg married Margot Laane but the couple lived together for only six months: in 1941, Georg was mobilized. According to multiple sources and based on the biopic, soon after Georg was mobilized, Margot started the relationship with the adjutant of the German commandant’s office as she thought that Georg had drowned in the sea and did not survive the bombing.
As per biopic, Georg and Asta started dating at the time while Georg was still married to Margot in 1942 in Yaroslavl. Asta was a dancer in the formed ensemble while Georg was singing. She was very beautiful but in her opinion very conscious of her height, therefore, to attract Georg’s attention she bought a big white hat and sat right in front of him while they were viewing the projector. They gave each other vows soon after and exchanged rings, even though Georg was still officially married to Margot.
However, other sources omit these details and just mention that they married in 1944 and lived for the next 20 years in a marriage with two children – Ulo and Ulle. Their marriage went through a turmoil when Georg’s career overshadowed hers and she dedicated her life to children and their home.
In the mid-1960s, they divorced and the same year Georg met and married a 20-year-old beauty-fashion model Ilona Noor, whose pictures did not leave the covers of glossy magazines at the time. Like Asta, Ilona left her career as well. Their marriage lasted until 1975 and together they have a daughter Marianne.
In the early 1970s, Georg was diagnosed with a brain tumour. Georg had 8 complicated operations, his eye was amputated but he courageously endured the disease and, having barely recovered, went back to work.
The artist died in the early autumn of 1975 and was buried in the Tallinn Forest Cemetery, where celebrities and Estonian statesmen are finding their last refuge until now.
According to Asta, she was not invited to the funeral when the entire country and the world grieved over Georg. She felt she was the one who made Georg and who really knew his story having been by his side during his prime years.
Even after the collapse of the USSR and when everything Soviet was rejected and crossed out, the “Saaremaa Waltz”, the most popular song in Georg’s repertoire, has continued to sound on the air.
After reading all that material and watching the movie, I can say that Georg’s life was half choice and half chance – with a little bit of luck around the corner and his head-on approach towards achieving anything he had ever wanted and also love for life – and on the other side, unbelievable coincidences and circumstances and recognition of his talent by the right people – Georg lived a prominent life, bringing hope that is instilled in the hearts of the older generation still.
As a man myself in my prime years now, I can understand and feel the struggle of seeing beauty in what one does and the freedom one feels – Georg was not an exception that’s why his story and his life hits close to home.
It has been 40 years since Georg Ots passed away and he would have been 100 years old this year, and I can’t stop but wonder what a grand legacy this man had left behind.
In honor of this event, a postage stamp was issued in Estonia, and in his hometown of St. Petersburg, the square was named after George Ots near the house where he was born.
Georg’s doubt that life loved him back would have evaporated if he had been alive now – as his heritage lives through his fans and family today – and this is something I want too to leave behind.