Georgia war survivor, world-renowned opera singer shares Pope Francis’ impact on her life and career.
Svetlana Kasyan is no ordinary opera singer. Russian – from a family of Kurdish origin – and Orthodox Christian, raised in Georgia and Kazakhstan, this 37-year-old soprano now travels the globe singing the world’s most famous tunes. One of her biggest fans is Pope Francis, whom she has met eight times since they first met in 2013.
Their last meeting, on January 11, lasted almost an hour. Also present was her husband, Leonid Sevastyanov, who is president of the World Union of Old Believers, a branch of Russian Orthodoxy. They took the opportunity to present to Pope Francis Svetlana’s first solo album, a composition with an evocative title: Fratelli Tuttiinspired by the pope’s encyclical published in October 2020. The singer and her husband tell I.MEDIA about their incredible relationship with the Argentine pontiff.
I.Media: How did the idea of making an album about Fratelli Tutti to arrive?
Svetlana Kasyan: The idea for this album came from my husband. While I only wanted to sing the most well-known opera arias, he suggested to me that it would be interesting to do something more. During one of my meetings with Pope Francis, the Pope told me that I should sing for the world and for world peace. It was then that the idea was born: to bring together songs from different horizons on the same album. So now the album includes 14 songs in 14 different languages.
What does this album represent for you?
Svetlana Kasyan: This album is like a compilation of moments of my life. I was born in Georgia, then when the war broke out, we moved to Kazakhstan. Then I went to study in Moscow and now I live in Russia with my family. The album contains songs from all these countries. But also others, like China and Japan, where I had a lot of professional success. And of course, Italy is present. It’s a country that I love and it’s like a second home for me. I think the greatest composers come from Italy: Puccini, Verdi, Giordano, Catalani. I also sang an Argentine tango with the song “La Cumparsita”.
What attracted you to the Pope’s teaching in Fratelli Tutti?
Svetlana Kasyan: That we are all brothers. For me it’s very important and as I’m an opera singer, that’s what I tried to show in my album. Music has this strength. I’m a Russian singer but I sing all over the world, in Germany with German repertoire, in Italy with Italian repertoire, etc. You can hear a beautiful Japanese song and don’t know the lyrics, but you can still hear and grasp something deep, regardless of politics or anything else.
Leonid Sevastyanov: During our meetings with the Pope, we spoke about it. How to communicate with people beyond nationality or religion, finding common bonds and languages that unite rather than divide, such as music and culture. When Svetlana sings Verdi Requiemfor example, the people who listen to her do not think that this composer is catholic, or orthodox, or any other religion, but they recognize the deep spirituality that emanates from the work.
How did the Pope react when you presented the album to him?
Svetlana Kasyan: He was happy! He found the idea of this album very interesting, because it reflects what he said, that we are “all brothers”. In fact, we also talked about war and what happens to the world’s poor after a war. I saw the war with my own eyes when I was a kid in Georgia. It was a difficult time for our family as my mother was alone with three young children. I know what war is.
Leonid Sevastyanov: The Pope also spoke to us about true culture as the search for beauty, which unites. He told us that artists are very important because they don’t have this divisive mentality and focus on what’s beautiful. Svetlana represents a story that unites. I think that’s why Pope Francis chose to communicate through music and with Svetlana. He understands how a person like her can unite. So he really likes Svetlana’s way of singing, and we hope that one day he will come to the Rome Opera; that would be a nice thing.
Why did you decide to dedicate this album to the Pope?
Svetlana Kasyan: The energy of Pope Francis can give you incredible strength. I wanted to thank him for everything he did, what he said to me and what I received from him. For me, as an artist, but also as a person, it was a great honor to receive so much from him. I think my performance of Tosca at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna in January went well because I did it after seeing the Pope. After each meeting, I feel like I can do a thousand performances and, as one reviewer said, sing with the same force as if I had three microphones all to myself.
Leonid Sevastyanov: The pope is truly amazing. He meets this simple woman—an opera singer—who isn’t even Catholic, and he talks to her like his cardinals or like a friend. There is no hierarchy with him.
Do you think the Pope will come to Russia?
Svetlana Kasyan: I invited him! It is my dream to see the pope one day in Russia. But right now it’s difficult with the Covid-19 and the pandemic.
Leonid Sevastyanov: He specified that he really wanted to come and that he particularly appreciated Russian culture. We mostly talked about that, not about religion. He told us he loved Dostoyevsky and Russian literature.