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World class soprano Svetlana Kasyan on her amazing journey from war zone to the Belfast stage, and why the Pope is one of her biggest fans

Once described as owning the “most promising voice on earth”, soprano Svetlana Kasyan has a four-octave range, is a first-class actor and counts the Pope among her many fans. She talks to Jane Hardy as she prepares to play Tosca on the Belfast stage

Svetlana Kasyan counts Pope Francis among her fans
Svetlana Kasyan counts Pope Francis among her fans Svetlana Kasyan counts Pope Francis among her fans
Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera
Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera

Soprano Svetlana Kasyan, the Russian-Kurdish singer tackling the tragic heroine Tosca in Northern Ireland Opera's production this month, is a star turn. The company is singing Puccini's politically charged 1900 opera in Italian, its original language. But as Kasyan indicates, operatic productions alter according to where they are put on.

"I've performed in amazing productions everywhere in Italy, often traditional, and 11 months ago, I did Tosca in Bologna with the director Hugo de Ana," she says.

Cameron Menzies, the director here, brings a lot of skill to the task. Kasyan (39) says: "He doesn't just understand the music, he knows about costumes, about the look, he's also a film-maker. I'm so happy to work with him."

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The psychological interpretation will be powerful: "In this production, Tosca is strong but she's also an opera singer, a diva. I've read the play by Victorien Sardou – like Italian women, she is jealous, hot, with lots of fire inside, full of love and emotion."

Kasyan adds that she relates to this depiction of the singer: "For me, Tosca is about my work, sometimes a little bit crazy, full of emotions that aren't so good, I know that, but that can help you onstage."

Learning later that the singer had a timetable of five hours' work a day on her voice for five years to achieve the right vocal quality, you begin to understand what it means about a kind of glorious obsession. "They say, 'It's easy for Svetlana to hit the high notes,' but it isn't. People would wait for me to hit the high note, a top C, in the duet with Cavaradossi in act one."

The appeal of this grand musical genre is its emotional content. Kasyan agrees: "I fell in love with opera when I was 17 after seeing Giuseppe Verdi's Aida with Leontyne Price and knew opera would be my life. Now I am doing this repertoire."

She adds that opera speaks to us now because of the music which is universal: "It's powerful and can open doors, change your experience to be better, more honest."

In 2013, Kasyan sang in a concert in Rome where the audience contained some people from the Vatican. "It was an Italian bel canto concert." Invited to meet Pope Francis, Kasyan says it wasn't daunting, simply "an honour". She was, she says now, a little bit pregnant, four weeks, with her nine-year-old daughter Natalie. "I told him and he said he would say prayers for the baby." He did, Coincidentally, Kasyan reveals she visited the Pope before the birth of her one-year-old son, promising to name him Francis if she had a boy.

Svetlana Kasyan counts Pope Francis among her fans
Svetlana Kasyan counts Pope Francis among her fans Svetlana Kasyan counts Pope Francis among her fans

The Pope is an opera buff, loves Puccini and Verdi, and revealed he had enjoyed Kasyan's performances on YouTube. "He told me I had given a strong performance in Bologna." Discussing how a Pontiff can be enthusiastic about an art form with extreme plots, Kasyan says she thinks it's to do with the human condition and its portrayal.

After performing on one of the biggest stages in the world, the Grand Theatre in Warsaw ("a difficult acoustic but great stage") Svetlana won the St Sylvester, a Papal award for those using their faith and working in the arts. She says with emotion: "It was a miracle to receive St Sylvester for me. Yes, I wrote to the Pope and he replied."

In her brilliant career, Kasyan has played 29 main roles yet unsurprisingly they always want to cast her in the high octane parts, including Madama Butterfly and Mimi in La Bohème. She is singing opposite tenor Peter Auty as her lover, the artist Caravadossi, in their second production together after a romantic production in New York.

She likes the pairing: "It's easy for him to act in love with me, he has good experience, he knows when to kiss me, when to have distance." Actually, though, Kasyan prefers Baron Scarpia, the dark character in the opera who triggers the tragedy through lust for the diva.

As with many operas, Tosca does not end well for its heroine. As somebody who doesn't like heights, Kasyan isn't over keen on the throwing off the battlements moment. This is one of the most intense scenes in opera and she says she has to concentrate: "I am afraid to jump, but I did it while pregnant."

Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera
Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera

But the feelings, played out in a 24-hour period when Napoleon's invasion of Italy threatens stability, are raw, although performers have a different take on things. Asked whether she finds this moment or the famous act two aria, Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore, with its exquisite emotional melody overwhelming, Kasyan says not. She has to use technique. "I got some important advice from a mezzo-soprano who said, 'It's important to find a way to be with a hot heart and a cold mind when you do it.'"

Svetlana is into fashion and popular culture, although not pop music: "I did sing some R'n'B as a student, though, to make money, also Beyoncé." In terms of broadening opera's appeal, Kasyan is a keen advocate. She did a glamorous shot in Maxim magazine in 2017 to reach a new audience, "And to show opera can be amazing and beautiful."

A witty woman, Svetlana Kasyan then finds a moment to guy the old style of opera singing, when acting wasn't key. "Today you have to look good, to act well, not just Nessun Dorma..." she declares, for a moment acting the great but different generation of Montserrat Caballé.

Opera singers rival sportsmen and women in their regime. "I learnt a lot from Gregory Kunde, a great tenor but not young, who every day finds the time to exercise like a young student. There are parallels with sport and in my iPad there are more than 35 scores – Mozart, Beethoven, everyone."

Kasyan is a survivor. Born and brought up in Georgia, which became a war zone when she was eight, she worked from the age of 11. "I was on a stall, like St George's Market there, did lots of jobs." Her mother, Seda, a single parent, was a piano teacher at a music school and helped discover her daughter's talent. "I knew I had a voice at about five or six."

She reveals she has lost her steely, beautiful soprano voice twice, for two years at puberty ("It came back when a friend asked me to sing onstage at school") and during a bad bout with Covid when she was in hospital. "I could have died. It makes you grateful and want to live every minute. You don't know what will happen, the plane could crash. Our life is so short, you must live."

Northern Ireland Opera's production of Tosca runs at the Grand Opera House (goh.co.uk) on September 9,12,14 and 16

Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera
Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera Svetlana Kasyan, pictured in Clonard Monastery, plays the title role in NI Opera's production of Puccini's Tosca. Picture by Neil Harrison Photography/NI Opera