The following conversation began at the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation is greatly appreciated. The conversation follows previous interviews posted at Rising Stars: An Interview with Sean Panikkar, Part 1 and Rising Stars: An Interview with Sean Panikkar, Part 2.
[Below: Tenor Sean Panikkar; resized image of a publicity photograph from Facebook/Sean Panikkar.]
Wm: Since we last spoke you have added something of a second career, as part of the popular trio of tenors, FORTE. For those of us that knew you in your pre-FORTE days, the question has to be, how did it happen?
SP: It definitely wasn’t something that I ever planned. I had just finished up a run of Puccini’s “La Boheme” with Fort Worth Opera, in the spring of 2013, and I was very much looking forward to my first summer off. I have two young children, (Maria now age 7 and Mark now age 4), and I had been working nonstop. It’s a good problem for a singer to have, but it is exhausting to go from job to job without much time to just be at home as a husband and father.
The day after I got home from my job in Fort Worth, all of us came down with the flu. While we were recovering at home, I received an email from my manager, Bill Palant, asking if I would be interested in joining a pop tenor group called FORTE on America’s Got Talent. It was totally out of the blue.
Wm: How did THAT come about?
SP: Forte had been formed by a tenor named Josh Page and they were an operatic tenor trio. Josh Page had been a winner of legendary producer/composer David Foster’s competition. It’s like Operalia for the crossover community.
[Below: the members of FORTE, from left to right Josh Page, Sean Panikkar and Hana Ryu; edited image of a FORTE promotional advertisement.]
Josh had the idea of forming a group consisting of three tenors that had met through the internet and he found the singers by going through youtube. When I got involved with the reality tv show, they had already finished the mass auditions – where people line up for hours outside of convention centers. FORTE had even finished their first televised round of the competition.
After the first round, America’s Got Talent requires every contestant to fill out legal paperwork. It was during this phase that one of the tenors in the group, Hana Ryu, was disqualified from the competition. While he had a legal visa, he didn’t have the type of visa needed to compete and win the top prize on the show according to AGT rules. This was devastating news to everyone in the group and it sent the remaining two members, Josh Page and Fernando Varela, on a crazy hunt to replace a tenor one week before the next round of competition.
While the group was billed as an operatic trio, Hana was the only opera singer in the group and he had been a young artist in the Tri-Cities Opera program. Josh felt that having a true operatic tenor was a key element of the group, and quite frankly one of the things that set FORTE apart from any number of groups that bill themselves as “tenors.”
He scoured industry sources and found me on the IMG website. When the group reached out to my manager, Bill gave them any number of names that he felt would be more “crossover,” but Josh was set on contacting me before pursuing anyone else.
Bill’s email to me is really funny in hindsight as he was qualifying why he was even sending an email asking about such a “commercial” venture, which many in the industry consider to be less than artistic. After learning that they wanted me to sing the way I sing, and not as a pop version of myself, I started to entertain the thought of accepting their invitation.
Wm: How did you make the decision to commit to FORTE?
SP: I was hesitant to commit. Keep in mind that I was still recovering from the flu and not feeling well. My wife, Jane, is the one who was convincing me to pursue it. After all, how many times in life do you get an opportunity of this magnitude handed to you? America’s Got Talent is the highest rated television show of the summer and they average 10-12 million viewers a week. That is the kind of exposure that opera singers, and opera in general, never receive. Even if it only lasted for one round, how could I pass it up?
[Below: Sean Panikkar in a rehearsal for a Metropolitan Opera Rising Stars concert at Purdue University; edited image of a publicity photograph from Facebook/Sean Panikkar.]
I was flip-flopping about whether it was something I wanted to pursue and then I received an email from Fernando Varela. It was the kind of personal connection I needed to make before making a decision to join the group, singing with strangers on national television.
I felt better about jumping into the group after I learned that he was a father, and we had both worked with the same voice teacher. The evening before I was supposed to fly to New York to meet Josh and Fernando, my daughter had a severe ear infection. She was up all night and nobody in the house got any sleep. I woke up and decided that I would just stay home. Jane told me that I should go because I would regret it if something actually came of the group, so I took her advice and went to the airport.
Then my day got even worse. My flight was severely delayed which caused a lot of logistical issues. For one, I didn’t realize that Josh and Fernando were meeting with other singers, and I also didn’t realize that Fernando had to head back to Florida on a late afternoon flight. I ended up getting to NYC very late and only had about fifteen minutes to meet with the guys before Fernando had to leave. They offered me the position on the spot and even though I knew I wanted to accept, I told them I had to go home and think about it. After a lot of prayer, I decided that it was something that I should try.
Wm: Then what happened?
SP: A few days later I was headed to Las Vegas for my first round of America’s Got Talent. I had no idea what to expect. I was heading into a high pressure situation with two guys that I had met for fifteen minutes. To top it off, the two of them had only known each other for a few hours so we were all basically complete strangers to each other, yet we needed to lean on each other for the group to be successful. It was a strange dynamic. The core of the issues that resulted in us changing the formation years later, were apparent right from the start.
I assumed we would be in and out for the audition, but the Las Vegas round wasn’t a live round. Opera singers are used to resting after a flight and hydrating before having to perform, but as soon as we landed, they loaded contestants on a shuttle and we went straight to a holding room. We weren’t even allowed to check in at the hotel.
They took our luggage from us and corralled us in a giant ballroom. There were cameras everywhere to film behind the scenes. Had I known that we would be on film immediately, I would have worn different clothes on my flight. I took a look around the room and everything felt really surreal. Here I was a few a days removed from singing Rodolfo and now I am in a giant room that looked like a circus. There were kid ballroom dancers, comedians, sword swallowers, dance teams, acrobats, and drag queens. I had no idea what I had gotten myself into.
We sat for hours, basically trying to get to know each other a little bit and then a producer tapped us on the shoulder and took us into the hallway. For this particular round of the competition, the contestants were split into thirds. One third advanced and one third were sent home without auditioning and then the final third had to re-audition.
Because FORTE had a new member, me, we had to audition, but before they put us on tv they sent us into a room full of producers and asked us to sing our piece. Josh and Fernando had already chosen David Foster’s “The Prayer,” which was made famous by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion. Practically everybody in America knows the song – except me. Fortunately they let me hold music and our first time “practicing” together was auditioning in front of producers. It wasn’t perfect, but it was good enough for them to want us to sing for the judges.
[Below: from left to right, FORTE members Fernando Varela, Sean Panikkar and Josh Page, appearing on the August 27, 2013 telecast of America’s Got Talent; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of Sean Panikkar.]
Here’s the kicker, because the first round was taped, we were in Las Vegas for 5 days. The first 3 days were one “television,” day meaning they wanted it to look like the same day. Nobody was allowed to change their clothes for 3 days! This didn’t thrill me.
On the 3rd day we sat around for hours and hours and finally they told us that they were ready for us. The show either wants people to be extremely successful in their audition or a colossal failure, so they don’t give you any warning. You also aren’t allowed to warm up because having a singer singing in the room would ruin a lot of their B roll footage.
We walked out onstage and there we were in front of Howard Stern, Heidi Klum, Mel B, and Howie Mandel. We sang “The Prayer,” and then there was silence. Again, this round was taped, so we didn’t hear any comments from the judges. It was also the only round that didn’t have an audience so we didn’t have that feedback. After what seemed like an eternity, Mel B asked me how I thought it went. I told her that it went pretty well for a group that had never done anything together. She just kind of grunted and we were told to leave the stage. It was so weird.
I was convinced that we were done, but I thought it was a fun experience. The next day we found out that we had advanced and that really kicked off the journey for FORTE.
Wm: Yet you seem to have stuck with it.
SP: After advancing to the live rounds at Radio City Music Hall, things progressively got stranger and stranger. We sang Somewhere from Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and received a rousing standing ovation. It was completely unexpected.
The producers encourage the audience to clap with “applause” signs, but FORTE was one of the few groups where the audience would genuinely leap to their feet as soon as we finished. It was such a great feeling to experience. We ended up advancing all the way to the finals and along the way we picked up the longest standing ovation in the history of America’s Got Talent.
[Below: From left to right FORTE’s Sean Pannikar and Hana Ryu, music producer/songwriter David Foster and FORTE’s Josh Page; resized image of a photograph, courtesy of Sean Panikkar.]
In the finals we didn’t win the top prize and we were dejected walking off of the Radio City Stage, but – like something straight out of a movie, record executives from Columbia Records, the largest division of Sony, signed us in the wings. We had one day off and then we were in the studio recording our self titled debut album.
Wm: So you are teaching your FORTE fans about opera?
What was refreshing to me was discovering that the American public actually really likes classical singing. The sad thing is that the opera community isn’t doing enough to reach most of America and they haven’t figured out a way to overcome misperceptions about opera being an elitist art form. There is such a focus on tradition that the genre isn’t evolving at a rate that keeps up with the general public.
America loves people like Andrea Bocelli or Jackie Evancho, because they are presented to them in a way that is accessible. A singer like Jonas Kaufmann, who is one of the top tenors singing in the world, isn’t nearly as famous as Bocelli.
Through the show, I have been able to bring a new audience to opera. There are several FORTE fans who have traveled all over the country just to see one of my opera performances. One of the highlights for me was when I was singing Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers” with Fort Worth Opera. Darren Keith Woods hired FORTE to play Bass Hall so I had opening night of “Pearl Fishers” and the very next night I was on the same stage singing with FORTE. A large percentage of the fans that came to the FORTE show, showed up a day early and experienced their first opera. That was tremendously rewarding for me.
Wm: What are some of the memorable experiences on America’s Got Talent?
The highlight of doing a show like America’s Got Talent is all of the incredible people you meet. It’s not just the other contestants, it’s the famous people that perform as guest stars on the show. One Direction, Robin Thicke, and Fallout Boy were some of the guest performers that appeared while we were there. For the finale we performed with Josh Groban.
James Lipton, of Inside the Actor’s Studio, also appeared on the show and he is a huge opera fan. We have a video of him singing Caro mio ben with us backstage. The judges were also great to meet, except for Howie Mandel. Howie, who had been a fan of ours the entire season, decided to sabotage us in the finale by saying over and over again that singing wasn’t as much of a talent as being a comedian or a dancer, because we were singing music that was composed by someone else.
Earlier in the season he had criticized bands for playing original music, so he was all over the place with his comments. He totally ignored the fact that dancers can have choreographers and comedians can have writers. America’s Got Talent is a hard competition to judge and vote for because everybody is so different, but that is what makes it so entertaining.
Wm: While you were pursuing AGT, did you put your operatic career on hold?
SP: As it turned out, there was only one engagement affected. I was supposed to sing Macduff in Verdi’s “Macbeth” in Dresden, Germany. It was the first job that I have had to cancel and I felt absolutely terrible about it, particularly because it was to be my German debut.
The schedule that AGT had provided us before I agreed to join the group would have worked out with the Dresden schedule, but halfway through the season AGT added a, “Top 12” round that replaced an originally planned, “YouTube round.” That round is what created a huge conflict for Dresden and given the potential opportunity that AGT provided, I had to withdraw.
Wm: What is recording a FORTE album like?
SP: Well, we are currently wrapping up our second album and it is a very different process than our first album. As I mentioned earlier, we had one day off after AGT and then we were in the studio recording. Columbia Records hired a team and they had already recorded the Royal Philharmonic in London so our songs were already set as were the tempi. We just walked in and literally sang our parts measure by measure because there was no time to study the music.
Columbia was trying to get the album out before Thanksgiving and that meant we needed to finish recording our vocals in 5 days. Somehow we managed to do it, but it was an exhausting experience. Fernando was extremely sick, so Josh and I were in the studi0 from 8 AM to 11 PM singing all day. It was rough. Then Fernando came in and could barely phonate so the producer had to work some tech magic to even get it presentable.
To top it off, Columbia had totally misunderstood what we were as a group. On AGT we had epic sub bass and everything was really over the top, in a good way. Columbia created a very standard adult contemporary album that was reminiscent of every other crossover group and the orchestral tracks were already locked in before we had a chance to hear them. It wasn’t what we wanted, but the album sold extremely well. It was one of the top selling classical albums in the US and it was on Amazon’s best sellers list for most of the fall of 2013. We were second only to Lady GaGa who had released an album at the same time. It really surprised us.
Despite the success of the first album, we weren’t happy with direction the group was going, so we got out of our contract with Columbia early. There are numerous reasons for this that I won’t dig into here, but basically we wanted to pioneer an epic new genre. We like to think of it as Hans Zimmer meets opera and merges with popular music.
As a group, this required some changes because we wanted to do this independently so we could be in complete artistic control. It’s very different making music when your own money is on the line. We partnered with Pledge Music, a crowd sourcing site, and hit 100% of our goal and that has been a huge help, but Josh Page and I invested a lot of our own money into the project.
We brought back Hana Ryu, the original member of Forte that I had replaced, to replace Fernando Varela who is no longer in the group for a variety of reasons. Then we set about creating our second album, “The Future Classics.” At its core, the premise is that the hits of today are the classics of the future, so we are reinterpreting top 40 songs in a classical style. It’s so much fun, but we did have a learning curve.
We now have a system in place where we can hear a song that is just released, create a full orchestral track, and finish a piece in about a week. It took about a year to get to this point, but we have an awesome team of talented artists behind the scenes that are working on this project.
Josh’s brother, Zach Page, is a brilliant guitarist and is producing the album along with Brian Foarde. Matteo Neri who has a background in film scoring is an associate producer on the album and does all of our orchestrations. The three of them work tirelessly through the night refining our album every day. Josh and Zach’s apartment, in Hell’s Kichen NYC, really is like a scene from “La Boheme” with guys sleeping on the couch and the floor.
Hana lived on Josh’s floor for six weeks right after he moved from Korea, and I frequently sleep on the couch when I’m in town doing FORTE work. We are a motley crew of brothers from such different backgrounds, but we are united by the music we are creating. It’s special.
The only thing that has really slowed down the album is all of the gigs we have been getting. The legendary music producer, David Foster, started using us for Foster & Friends events and that has led to some incredible connections with people that we would never have dreamt of meeting or working with. Michael Milken just recently re-hired us for an event with Major League Baseball Owners.
One of the songs on our new album is Usher’s “Without You,” and last month we were in Denver for an event with David that Usher was also singing on. He pulled us up on stage and FORTE sang “Without You,” with Usher. It was incredible. It’s strange when meeting famous celebrities feels semi normal.
To launch the new formation of the group, we knew we needed to make a big splash. Josh had been brainstorming creative ideas that had viral potential, and one of the things he kept coming back to was “The Game of Thrones,” which is one of the most popular television shows currently on air. The theme song is a beautiful orchestral piece written by Ramin Djawadi, but there is no text.
Josh took text in High Valyrian, the “made up” language used on the show, and set it to the theme and we came up with a brilliant piece of Game of Thrones opera music. We had wanted to do this about a year earlier, but we couldn’t get everybody on board. Now with Hana Ryu in the group, we wanted to put something out that showcased the new direction that we were heading. We hired a film crew and recorded a music video that has already received over 600,000 views on YouTube.
[Below: Sean Panikkar (right), Hana Ryu (left) and Josh Page (center, in distance) in a scene from FORTE’s YouTube video of the Game of Thrones theme song, whose lyrics are in High Valyrian; edited image, based on a screenshot from Facebook/Opera Warhorses.]
For a long time, when you searched opera on YouTube, our Game of Thrones video is the first thing that came up. It’s one of those areas that opera companies aren’t tapping into. Opera companies and singers can’t even release videos of them singing an aria in performance because the orchestral unions restrict recording so tightly.
Wm: Now you were not only were a recognizable reality TV contestant, but you have a popular album. How did your new celebrity status affect your life?
SP: I don’t consider myself a celebrity and it is always surprising when I’m out and about and somebody recognizes me from AGT. I find it funny when I see the look in somebody’s eye where they know they have seen me, but they can’t place where. I have had so many people come up to me and say, “Haven’t I met you before?” AGT has such a huge passionate fan base, that I do get recognized a lot. I think it helps that, as a Sri Lankan American, I don’t blend in with the crowd too much.
The best part of being recognizable is all of the opportunities we receive. Our first job post-AGT was headlining Carnegie Hall for Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Foundation. Then The White House invited us to sing at The National Tree Lighting where we performed alongside Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin.
[Below: from left to right, FORTE members Josh Page, Sean Panikkar and Fernando Varela perform at the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony; edited image, based on a publicity photograph, courtesy of Sean Panikkar.]
I couldn’t have ever imagined singing for and personally meeting a sitting President and First Lady as well as their children. President Obama has this amazing quality that whether or not you are a democrat or a republican, he instantly makes you feel like you are his best friend and that you have known each other for years.
After singing for the President, we headlined our own show in Las Vegas with a New Year’s residency at The Tropicana. We also did private events that required us to sign confidentiality agreements. One was with a world famous director that EVERYBODY knows and he filmed us on his iphone. Seeing him do that was surreal and I wish I could name names, but I can’t.
Wm: You mentioned FORTE fans coming to your opera performances. I suppose that is raising your already impressive stock with opera companies.
Wm: I think it does help, if the company knows how to promote it. I have had companies or writers from newspapers that very intentionally don’t mention AGT or my participation in FORTE because they are so focused on separating opera from what FORTE does. Then there are companies that fully embrace it and welcome the new audience members with open arms.
[Below: FORTE (holding microphones from left to right, Josh Page, Sean Panikkar and Hana Ryu) perform in a Denver concert; edited image, based on a photograph from Sean Panikkar.]
A lot of industry people have a huge misperception of what AGT actually is. America’s Got Talent is one of the few competitions where you are allowed to be a professional and you are allowed to have managers. FORTE used AGT as a platform to launch publicly.
There was a very public letter from an opera manager denouncing AGT and what it does, but really that manager is doing their clients a disservice by not exploring the opportunity to put one of their singers on a stage in front of 12 million people and letting them do what they do.
Wm: You mentioned audiences unfamiliar with opera confusing, say, Susan Boyle with opera singing. However, anyone hearing YOU in an opera performance would recognize you as an opera singer. What have you learned about opera singing as a popular celebrity?
SP: The expectations are completely different. In an opera audience there are a number of people that are sitting there waiting for a singer to crack, sing flat, or just plain screw up so they can run home and write about it on a gossip blog (yes these do exist and there are a bunch of them).
The TV audience is hearing classical singing with fresh ears and they just enjoy it for what it is. When we perform live, we are better than every other tenor group out there. I have heard the other groups, and if you sent an opera blogger to one of their performances, assuming it was live instead of lip synched, they would be horrified. We actually sing well, in tune, and we are musical, but even if we made a mistake, our audience would be happy to be a part of the moment that we are creating with them rather than quick to pounce on a flaw.
Wm: You mentioned being besieged for autographs and pictures. When did you realize that you had really become a celebrity?
SP: When AGT happened for FORTE, I had been singing opera professionally for ten years. When I was an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, I would occasionally be recognized if I was within a few blocks of the War Memorial Opera House, but after my first televised AGT round, I couldn’t even go to the grocery store without being recognized.
[Below: from left to right, celebrity pop artist Joe Jonas, FORTE’s Hana Ryu, supermodel Gigi Hadid and FORTE’s Sean Panikkar and Josh Page; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Sean Panikkar.]
All of a sudden I had to look presentable every time I left my house because people would be asking to take pictures with me. It was fun and strange at the same time. It was always a little strange when I would be out at the zoo with my kids and I would see people make multiple passes by us before finally coming up and asking for an autograph or a picture.
Maria and Mark were 5 and 2 when all of this started happening so they think that being on tv and getting recognized is a totally normal thing. I guess everybody’s normal is different and everybody’s normal evolves.
The conversation continues at: Singing Opera and Unexpectedly Famous: A Conversation with Sean Panikkar, part 2.