Each episode of the television show ‘America’s Got Talent’ draws anywhere between 10 and 12 million viewers in the United States alone. This is the largest audience Sean Panikkar, 31, has ever performed for and it makes for an unusual twist in an already very successful career. Having been voted through to the semi-final round as a member of the opera tenor trio Forte, Sean is finding that he’s suddenly famous.
Sean, soon to sing in a world premiere
“I have been singing in theatres all across the country professionally for 10 years and have never been recognised in public unless it was by a really big opera fan. One appearance on a TV show and people know who I am. It is so surreal,” he tells the Sunday Times in an email interview. Whether the American tenor, born to Sri Lankan parents, will make it through to the finals on the show or not will be decided on August 27, when the next episode airs.
Those serious opera fans he mentioned earlier know Sean for what he’s already accomplished. Critics have lauded his ‘surpassing musicality and passion, commanding self-confidence and gorgeous expression’ and his‘remarkable clarion tenor timbre’ while admiring his ‘handsome presence’. Having made his Metropolitan Opera debut in the 2007-2008 season in ‘Manon Lescaut’ as Edmondo and his European debut as Gomatz in Mozart’s ‘Zaïde’ at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, Sean is one of those rare opera singers who has seldom had to go looking for work.
Holding a Master’s and a Bachelor’s degree in Voice Performance from the University of Michigan, Sean has been honoured by the George London Foundation with the 2007 Robert Jacobson Memorial Award and the 2009 George London Award; he is also a First Prize winner of the 2010 Gerda Lissner International Vocal Competition and second place winner in the 2009 International Hans Gabor Belvedere Singing Competition.This season his operatic engagements include a new production of ‘The Magic Flute’ at the Chicago Opera Theatre, ‘Don Giovanni’ at the Pittsburgh Opera, ‘La rondine’ and ‘Othello’ at the Metropolitan Opera, and the tenor’s first Rodolfo in ‘La bohème’ with the Fort Worth Opera. He’s also been cast more than once as the lead tenor Nadir in productions of George Bizet’s ‘The Pearl Fishers’ where his unusual looks have been an advantage.
Dark- skinned with a commanding height and build, Sean claims the stage with confidence. “I think my Sri Lankan heritage gives me a unique look and there aren’t many Asians in opera, so I look at it as an asset,” he says. Born to a father of mixed Sinhalese and Indian heritage and to a Sri Lankan Tamil mother, Sean was destined to be an engineer. While Sean’s brother Rajiv was born in Matara, Sean who came six years later grew up in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania.
He and his brother both took music lessons as children. Sean started playing the violin at age 4, added the piano shortly after and then studied the trombone for good measure. His first experience with classical vocal training came with an operatic soprano named Li Ping Liu who tried to get Sean to interpret some of his favourite songs – Michael Jackson’s ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ and Billy Joel’s ‘We Didn’t Start the Fire’ – in an operatic style. “Needless to say it was ridiculous, so I quickly stopped studying voice,” says Sean.
Few knew of his remarkable voice. “I was an extremely shy kid so I never sang at home, not even in the shower. My parents often accused me of lip synching during choir concerts because they didn’t think I could actually sing.” However, when applying for university Sean knew that rank of All State singer would be a fine addition to the section on extracurricular activities in his C.V and increase his chances of being accepted, so he returned to Ms. Liu and dedicated himself to learning opera. Enrolled into one of the top engineering programmes in the US at the University of Michigan, Sean simultaneously applied to study music at the same school on Ms. Liu’s encouragement.
Sean would devote himself to both fields until in his senior year he dropped out of engineering and chose to focus just on music. It was a difficult decision for his parents to accept. “As it is, my father and brother are both medical doctors and every single one of my cousins is either a doctor or a lawyer,” says Sean ruefully.
If they had known the odds their son faced, they may have been even more reluctant to give him their blessing. “An operatic career is something that is extremely difficult,” he reveals. “Every person is blessed with a different voice from God and very few have the stamina, endurance and volume to sing unamplified over an orchestra into a 5,000-seat theatre.”
The Magic Flute
Fortunately for him, Sean had both the voice and the inclination to work hard – whether in sickness or in health. His pay cheque hinges not on rehearsals but on the final performance. He once performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl with the flu and a 103 degree fever.
“That was the most challenging thing I have ever done on stage, but I ended up getting through it…I have always been an extremely hard worker and having Sri Lankan parents I was always expected to strive for perfection,” he says, adding, “I also prepare fanatically. I know every single word and every single note before I step foot in rehearsal. If you are on top of your game, people take notice and want to work with you again.” To sing opera, Sean has learnt Spanish, Italian, German and French and has a smattering of Russian or Czech in addition to English. He relies on his wife of eight years, the choral conductor and pianist Jane Panikkar (whom he met at university), to help him learn the music for each new opera.
The couple have two children – Maria aged 4 shares her birthday with Sean and Mark who was also born in September is only a year old. Like her father, Maria is hooked on theatre. “She loves every minute of it and started sitting through entire shows at the age of three.”(Her favourite opera is Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’.) “She really wants to be on stage with me and there have been a few offers for her to be in operas with me,” says Sean. Though he loves his work, Sean is saddened that it means so much time away from his wife and children. They try to make the long absences more bearable by Skyping every day. “Thirty years ago, I don’t think I could have done this job. Even with all of the current technology, I write to my wife and children individual letters every single day that I am away,” he says.
Sharing the stage with his little girl aside, Sean has always wanted to sing in a world premiere of an opera and will get the chance in the near future when he plays the title character in an adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s novel ‘Shalimar the Clown’.
“Things like that are fun because nobody has ever been that character before on stage,” says Sean. It will be another chance to have the world sit up and take note – Sean Panikkar’s star is on the rise.
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on 18 August, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Sean Panikkar.