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Orthodox opera singer has unlikely friendship with Pope



I.Media - published on 02/12/22

A survivor of war in Georgia, one world famous opera singer shares how Pope Francis has impacted her life and career.

Svetlana Kasyan is no ordinary opera singer. Russian—from a family of Kurdish origin—and an Orthodox Christian, raised in Georgia and Kazakhstan, this 37-year-old soprano now travels the globe singing the world’s most famous arias. One of her biggest fans is Pope Francis, whom she has met eight times since their first meeting in 2013. 

Their last meeting, on January 11, lasted nearly an hour. Also in attendance was her husband, Leonid Sevastianov, who is president of the World Union of Old Believers, a branch of Russian Orthodoxy. They took the opportunity to present Pope Francis with Svetlana’s first solo album, a composition with an evocative title: Fratelli Tutti, inspired by the Pope’s encyclical published in October 2020. The singer and her husband tell I.MEDIA about their amazing relationship with the Argentine pontiff.

I.Media: How did the idea of making an album about Fratelli Tutti come about?  

Svetlana Kasyan: The idea for this album came from my husband. While I only wanted to sing opera’s most famous arias, he suggested that it would be interesting to do something more. At one of my meetings with Pope Francis, the Pope told me that I should sing for the world and for world peace. That’s when the idea was born: to bring together songs from different backgrounds on one album. So now the album includes 14 songs in 14 different languages.

A word of thanks from Pope Francis.

What does this album mean to you?

Svetlana Kasyan: This album is like a compilation of moments in my life. I was born in Georgia, then, when the war started, 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 have had a lot of professional success. And of course, Italy is present. It’s a country 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 about the Pope’s teaching in Fratelli Tutti?

Svetlana Kasyan: That we are all brothers. In my opinion, it’s very important and as I am an opera singer, this is what I tried to show in my album. The music has this strength. I am a Russian singer but I sing all over the world, in Germany with a German repertoire, in Italy with an Italian repertoire, etc… You can hear a beautiful Japanese song and not know the words, but you can still hear and grasp something deep, regardless of politics or anything else.

Leonid Sevastianov: In our meetings with the Pope, we talked about this. How to communicate with people beyond nationality or religion, finding common bonds and languages that unite rather than divide, like music and culture. When Svetlana sings Verdi’s Requiem, for example, people who listen to her don’t think that this composer is Catholic, or Orthodox, or any other religion, but they recognize the deep spirituality that comes through the work.

Svetlana Kasyan, Pope Francis and Leonid Sevastianov.

How did the Pope react when you presented him the album?

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 poor in the world after a war. I saw war firsthand as a child in Georgia. It was a difficult time for our family because my mother was alone with three young children. I know what war is like.

Leonid Sevastianov: 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 do not have this divisive mentality and focus on what is 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. Then he likes very much the way Svetlana sings, and we hope that one day he will come to the Opera of Rome; it would be a beautiful thing.

Why did you decide to dedicate this album to the Pope?  

Svetlana Kasyan: The energy of Pope Francis can give you an incredible strength. I wanted to thank him for everything he did, what he told me and what I received from him. For me, as an artist, but also just 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 critic said, sing with the same strength as if I had three microphones all to myself.

Leonid Sevastianov: The Pope is really amazing. He meets this simple woman—an opera singer—who is not even Catholic and he talks to her as to his cardinals or as to a friend. There is no hierarchy with him. 

Do you think that the Pope will come to Russia?

Svetlana Kasyan: I have invited him! It’s my dream to see the Pope one day in Russia. But at the moment it is difficult with Covid-19 and the pandemic.

Leonid Sevastianov: He made it clear that he was very keen to come and that he particularly appreciated Russian culture. We talked mostly about that, not about religion. He told us that he liked Dostoyevsky and Russian literature.  

Classical MusicFratelli TuttiMusicPope Francis
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