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‘My schedule is Tosca, Tosca, Tosca, Aida, Tosca, Tosca’: Svetlana Kasyan on her signature role

The Bolshoi-trained singer is about to make her Irish debut, starring as Puccini’s character at the Grand Opera House in Belfast

Svetlana Kasyan: ‘I had a difficult voice, because I have a big range, more than four octaves.’ Photograph: Neil Harrison

Svetlana Kasyan is one of those people whose lives were decided by a light-bulb moment. “When I was maybe 16 years old I saw Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida with Leontyne Price. And I fell in love. I understood that it would be my life,” she says. “Nothing could be better than opera,” she says.

And so it proved: the soprano, who was born into a Kurdish family in Georgia – and makes her Irish debut this week in her signature role, as the eponymous heroine of Puccini’s Tosca for Northern Ireland Opera – went on to train as a singer at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.

Kasyan’s light-bulb moment did not come out of nowhere. Her mother was a musician, a pianist. “When I was a young girl I heard a lot of beautiful music that my mum played at home. Music by Chopin, Beethoven, Tchaikovsky.” (Virtually every mention of a composer in connection with opera comes, Russian style, with a first name and a family name. But in the context of piano music it’s just the familiar surnames.)

Sometimes mezzo-sopranos tell me: People will think that you are a mezzo-soprano and I am a soprano

Kasyan herself was an active performer as a young girl. “I sang loads of songs, pop songs. I won a lot of competitions for children. But it was only when I saw Leontyne Price that I started to think about classical music and singing opera. Before that there was also a lot of folk music. But after experiencing Giuseppe Verdi I decided I had to be an opera singer.”


Her family did not stay in Georgia. “When war came we went with my family, my mother, my brother and my grandmother, to Kazakhstan. After I had heard Leontyne Price I decided to find a vocal teacher. I went to Moscow, to the conservatory. After two years I also began to study at the young artists programme at the Bolshoi Theatre.”

She describes herself a “a lucky person, because we had amazing teachers, conductors, stage directors who worked with us a lot. Coaches from all over the world, La Scala, Metropolitan Opera, Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, a lot of great places. I had a very, very good education. After maybe two or three years in the young-artists programme I won prizes in three international competitions. And after that I began my international career.”

Her first teacher was the Russian soprano Galina Pisarenko, who died last year at the age of 86. Pisarenko’s name may not be that well known in the West, but her admirers included the composer Dmitri Shostakovich (she was among the musicians whose recordings were played at his funeral), the director Walter Felsenstein (she worked regularly for the Komische Oper in what was then East Berlin), the conductor Evgeny Svetlanov and the pianist Sviatoslav Richter.

Richter wrote in his diary in 1971, “There’s no question about it, from now on neither we ourselves nor any of our friends will miss any of Galya’s concerts. The Moscow public loves her for her attractive voice, the charm of her interpretations and her sheer physical beauty. I think audiences in the provinces also love and appreciate her. She very much likes to sing, even more than the works she sings.”

Kasyan seems to have had a very special relationship with Pisarenko. “I had a difficult voice, because I have a big range, more than four octaves. And it was hard to understand which repertoire would be best for me. I had performed Carmen, Eboli in Verdi’s Don Carlo.” But at the Bolshoi she got to work in more dramatic repertoire. “It was with this dramatic repertoire that I won an international competition. And I had success in auditions with Puccini, Verdi.” It was Pisarnko, she says, who found the key that would unlock her voice.

Svetlana Kasyan: ‘I have this high G, but I can’t do the Queen of the Night. Only slowly, like a big elephant’

Kasyan speaks in deep, softly grained tones, and she laughs a lot. She is definitely amused by the paradoxes her voice can create. Her low notes, she says, communicate very strongly when she performs on stage. “Sometimes mezzo-sopranos tell me: People will think that you are a mezzo-soprano and I am a soprano.”

And her high notes extend beyond the notoriously challenging high Fs in the Queen of the Night’s aria in Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute. She can go a note higher, she says. But the Queen of the Night is not for her. She has the notes, but her voice does not have the agility that is essential in this role. “I have this high G, but I can’t do the Queen of the Night. Only slowly, like a big elephant.” She sings to demonstrate how heavy and slow it would be were she to perform it. And laughs at herself over and over.

Her relationship with Tosca goes very deep. She identifies with the character on every level. She traces the connection again and again, from different angles. “Singing is my life,” she says. She references the character’s most famous aria. “‘Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore’ – to live for art, to live for love. It’s everything for me. More than for somebody who only works to earn money. For example, when I entered international competitions, for me it was important to prepare five arias. For other colleagues it was important to see how much money they would receive if they were the winner. For me it was only the music. I’m crazy about music.”

You need to be very smart about your voice. If you’re not, you can lose it. It’s like a sport

Singing, she acknowledges, is a difficult calling. She mentions the stress, long flights, promoters who skimp and want a quick shift from post-flight mode into performing mode. “You can maybe perform on piano or conduct after that. But you can’t sing after that. You need to be very smart about your voice. If you’re not, you can lose it. It’s like a sport. You need to sleep well. You can’t drink. You should be healthy, not only with your body but also with your mentality. If not you will be too nervous before some important performances, auditions.”

Everything can affect the voice, she says. “I could tell you a lot of stories about it. Sometimes, before Covid, I had a lot of performances without a weekend off, without a vacation. It’s important to be able to find your energy.” She gives the Arena di Verona, the Roman amphitheatre that can seat audiences of more than 20,000 people, as an example.

“When you are singing Aida there, you are alone on the stage, without microphone, without anything except your voice. You need be full of energy. Your sound should be fresh, your voice should be fresh. My family and my best friends know that before performances, for one or two days, sometimes, I like to be alone. For me it’s important to be full for my audience, full of energy, of vocal colours.”

There are rewards, of course. “I have a big audience around the world. I have received a lot of letters and praise. I’m a lucky person ... People love me. I’m so grateful for that. Maybe they can feel me through my roles, in my music when I’m on the stage.”

Pisarenko commented on it. “She told me, it’s so strange, so interesting why you have such a big following – more than 100,000 people follow me on social media.” She’s actually being modest. She has more than 135,000 followers on Instagram.

“It’s amazing to receive the messages, lots of sweet things. When I am in Tokyo or in Italy I can go into a restaurant and see my photo on the wall. I’m grateful for that. It can help me to find power, and inspiration to work better and better.”

Photograph: Neil Harrison

For someone who trained in Moscow, she does not actually sing very much Russian repertoire. “Usually I sing Giacomo Puccini and Giuseppe Verdi. Because it’s so good for my voice. Russian repertoire is so difficult. I’m originally Kurdish. Russian repertoire is difficult for me. I can do it really well. But Italian repertoire is better for me.”

Tosca, the opera singer in love with the painter Cavaradossi, who get entangled in dark politics in Rome in 1800, was her first role. “I was so young, 23 or 24,” she says. And she has performed it more than 100 times since. She sang it a lot at the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma, where the opera was premiered in 1900, and spent time visiting the real-life locations where the work is set: Castel Sant’Angelo (built as a mausoleum for the Emperor Hadrian, now a museum), the Palazzo Farnese, and the church, Sant’Andrea della Valle. That gave her an opportunity to immerse herself in the world of the work as well as the world of its premiere.

She laughs as she talks about how her schedule looks. “It’s, like, Tosca, Tosca, Tosca, Aida, Tosca, Tosca, Manon Lescaut, Tosca, Tosca, Tosca, Madama Butterfly, Tosca, Tosca, Tosca ... ” And seems clear that she’s not at all tired of it yet. She’s been told in Italy that she’s a match for Tosca’s appearance, even without make-up. It might be hard, she admits, were she to encounter a character like that in real life. “It could be difficult to be together with someone who is the same as you. It’s interesting to be with somebody [who] is different. Maybe I would be jealous, because I should be the main woman, not only on stage but also in life. Two Toscas might be dangerous.”

Northern Ireland Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca is at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, on Saturday, September 9th; Tuesday, September12th, Thursday, September14th, and Saturday, September 16th