As an opera tenor who had sung from many of the world’s great stages, Sean Panikkar thought he knew about drama. But even he wasn’t prepared for “America’s Got Talent.”
He was swept into the show in 2013 almost by accident. Three tenors who had met online and called themselves Forte had auditioned for the show and received the thumbs up. But one of them, the Korean-born Hana Ryu, was told he could no longer participate because of visa problems.
Back to the internet the tenors went. Their new search turned up Panikkar.
A promising opera tenor with prestigious engagements, Panikkar wasn’t much for crossover. But he liked the idea of expanding opera’s audience. He agreed to join the group in Las Vegas, where they were next scheduled to sing before the show’s producers.
What was that experience like?
“Terrible,” Panikkar laughed on the phone from St. Louis, where he was singing with the Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
“They take us into the hotel. They take our luggage, they put us in this ballroom. I’m with two guys I don’t know. And with all these other people. It was like being in a circus. Little kids, ballroom dancers, sword swallowers, drag queens, little girl dance teams.” It was worlds away from the Puccini opera he had just left. “I was just looking around the room, thinking, what in the world am I doing here?”
“They don’t want you to be really prepared. So they throw you in at the last minute. You sit for hours and hours, then you randomly get called. ‘Forte, you’re up.’ ”
There’s a method to that madness, he reflected.
“It really creates an environment where the cream will rise, everyone else will fall apart. They like both. They want people to fail, and they want people to succeed. If you’re mediocre, that’s not interesting to them. They want to create drama.”
The newly configured Forte dazzled the judges. Howard Stern was particularly admiring of Panikkar.
“The new guy is the strongest singer,” the shock jock declared.
Ultimately, Forte came in fourth. But any disappointment that they had at being eliminated evaporated when, trooping offstage, they found an agent from Columbia Records waiting for them.
Their subsequent album was a runaway hit. And overnight, Panikkar became a pop star.
“We did Carnegie Hall for Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Charity, immediately after ‘America’s Got Talent,’ and right after that, the White House tree lighting. Mariah Carey was there. Aretha Franklin was there,” he said. “You think, why am I in front of this person? It’s kind of amazing.”
Singing with Usher
On June 30, when Forte performs at Kleinhans Music Hall, 100 percent of the proceeds will benefit Catholic Charities. Expenses have been covered by LP Ciminelli and by an anonymous donor.
“We’ve been fortunate to do charity events,” Panikkar said. “It’s an awful lot of fun, doing this thing for Catholic Charities. I’m not Catholic, but it’s about helping people, when you’ve been given opportunity.”
The group’s charity appearances have thrown them together with unexpected celebrities. Things grew particularly surreal in Denver, when Forte joined Usher in a charity event.
“His wife was there, and he had two little boys, about the age of my daughter. Usher’s wife is a huge opera fan. I told her, ‘We did an operatic cover of “Without You.” We’d like to sing it for Usher. And we did sing it for him, in his sound check.
“He said, ‘This is really great! Why don’t we do it at the end?’ So at the end of the show we performed ‘Without You,’ in Denver, with Usher.”
It was a long road that led to that strange juncture.
Panikkar, now 34, was born in Bloomsburg, Pa. His parents, immigrants from Sri Lanka, got him started on violin and piano lessons when he was young.
At the University of Michigan, he initially had a double major in music and engineering. While singing in the chorus of a production of Puccini’s “La Boheme” he fell in love with opera.
He also fell in love with his future wife, Jane, a classmate. Jane is now a music minister at a Catholic church in Ann Arbor. They have two young children, Maria and Mark.
Panikkar credits his wife, who plays trumpet and holds a master’s degree in conducting, with helping him learn operas.
“She’s a much more rounded musician than I am,” he said.
Reaching his audience
Panikkar’s website, seanpanikkar.com, lists a busy opera schedule. He’s singing in August at the Bard Summer Festival, and he has two operas on schedule at the Metropolitan Opera: Rossini’s “William Tell” this fall, and Gounod’s “Romeo and Juliet” next spring.
How does he make time for his Forte gigs?
“Opera work is usually scheduled two or three years in advance. With pop, it’s sometimes a month out,” he said. “The opera will sometimes let me out of rehearsals, so as long as it doesn’t conflict with the opera performances, I’m OK.”
At Kleinhans, he will be joining his fellow Forte tenors – founding member Josh Page and Hana Ryu, who ironed out his visa issues and rejoined the group after the other singer, Puerto Rican tenor Fernando Varela, left for a solo career. At Kleinhans, accompanied by a soundtrack and an onstage combo, the tenors will be singing the crossover numbers that propelled them to the top of “America’s Got Talent,” in addition to more uptempo pop numbers from their second album.
It’s fun, Panikkar said. And it’s working. When he hoped that Forte would help more people discover opera, it turned out he was right.
“I have fans who follow me from opera to opera,” he laughed.
He loves the thought of more people waking up to the age-old vocal art that is opera.
“It’s not unlike seeing an athlete playing at highest level, LeBron James playing basketball,” he said. “To be on stage and sing over an orchestra, have your voice carry, it’s something that takes a unique skill. In Forte, we’re taking that skill, applying it to more modern music in a way that reaches modern audiences.
“There’s something special about feeling and hearing a human voice at its max.”
Who: Forte Tenors
When: 7 p.m. June 30
Where: Kleinhans Music Hall
What: Benefit for Catholic Charities