U-M grad and Saline resident Sean Panikkar talks Forte, 'America's Got Talent' and tonight's semifinals
"We aren't allowed to leave the Radio City holding room, which is in the basement, so I have no cell signal," Panikkar wrote in an email. "I just happened to check my voicemail on the way to wardrobe. We have a dress rehearsal and then we will be here until after the show. The same thing will happen tomorrow for the results show."
Even so, through the miracle of technology, Panikkar answered some questions from AnnArbor.com via email.
Q. How are you feeling about tonight’s performance?
A. We are really excited about tonight's performance. As a group we have come so far from where we were at the beginning of the show. Forte competed in the first round, and then I joined the group for the first time in their Las Vegas round. We really didn't know each other and so it was a huge risk for all of us. We literally showed up in Las Vegas, went out on stage, and sang "The Prayer." So many acts have been rehearsing and refining their act for years and we were doing it on the fly.
Our first Radio City round was a really great experience. We didn't have any idea what to expect, but the crowd was completely electric and we really fed off of the energy the crowd was giving us. That was the biggest difference between Vegas and New York. In Vegas we were only singing for the judges without an audience.
Now that we are doing our second Radio City performance we have a good idea of what to expect. There is still a freshness to what we are doing, but we are more comfortable with each other, and we have confidence in each other. We realize we are in a high stakes competition, but we are thrilled to be here and we know how fortunate we are to be in this position.
Q. I know you don’t want to reveal the song you're performing tonight, but was the song choice something you all brainstormed together?
A. Picking a song for "America's Got Talent" is a lot more complicated than a lot of people realize. The first limiting factor is that every act is restricted to 90 seconds. In order to find a song that can be cut down to 90 seconds without losing the essence of the original is hard. We brainstormed as a group and then had meetings with producers. Sometimes a song that we all want to do is not able to be cleared by the publishers for a TV performance, so that is an added wrinkle. I can't reveal our song for tonight's show, but it is one of the most recognizable songs of all time and I think we have a really unique spin on it. We are a classical group, so whatever song we sing, whether classical or popular, is going to have a bit of a unique take.
Q. When Josh and Fernando reached out to you to join the group, did you check out their work online before saying “yes”?
A. There was a lot that went into my decision. I have a very busy opera schedule and I am booked into 2015 with opera engagements around the world. I live in Saline with my wife Jane and our two children Maria, age 4, and Mark, age 1. Because of my busy schedule, I had intentionally turned down work this summer so I could be home with my family. I travel so much for work that I just wanted to be a husband and a father without thinking about opera. I had just returned from Texas, where I was singing Rodolfo in "La Boheme," and out of nowhere, I was contacted by Forte. They had lost a member after their first round due to visa issues which made him ineligible for "America's Got Talent." I was on the fence about it because crossover -Â singing popular music classically - is not really my thing, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to me. Opera is an art form that is hundreds of years old, but while it was mainstream in the early 1900s, it is struggling a bit now. If joining the group could bring some exposure to opera, then I thought it was a good move. I did listen to clips of Josh and Fernando. They aren't opera singers, but they sing classically. They also were interested in bringing together different cultures and voices to create a unique harmony, and I think that is exactly what we are doing. Individually we are all excellent solo singers, but together we are so much stronger, especially for a show like "America's Got Talent."
Q. It sounds like you had very little time to rehearse before you performed with the group. That’s very different from all the prep and rehearsal you normally do. Were you nervous and worried about how it would work out vocally with all 3 of you?
A. I was never really nervous for myself. I am used to high pressure environments. In opera, I generally have three or four weeks of rehearsal, but when I am singing as a soloist with a symphony, we rehearse and get it together in a few days. I knew that I would be prepared, but I was concerned about what the other guys were like. After meeting them in person, a lot of my worries subsided. Now I have full confidence in our ability as a group. Unlike a solo act, we have each other to share the burden, and that makes it so much more enjoyable.
Q. Have you had the time to get to know Josh and Fernando a bit better at this point? What are they like?
A. We now know each other pretty well. All three of us are very different, but we are really like brothers. Josh is the youngest in the group, so he brings a great vibrancy, and he has a "can do" attitude. Fernando is the oldest, and he is very methodical about things, like any oldest child would be. I am right in the middle. We all have strengths that cover the others' weaknesses, which is really great.
Q. Have you started getting recognized at all?
A. We get recognized all the time! That's the crazy thing. I have been performing opera in theaters around the world for 10 years, and I only get recognized by hardcore opera fans. After our Vegas round aired, we started getting recognized all over the place. When we came to NYC for the last round, people were stopping us on the street all the time and asking for pictures. It was so unexpected. It's hard to comprehend being seen by 10-12 million people, but really about 1 out of every 30 Americans has seen our face and heard us sing. It's crazy.
Q. If you advance further on AGT, you'll have to fly back and forth from an opera job in Germany. What show will you be in there? Will someone have to perform in your place while you’re gone?
A. I will be singing Macduff in Verdi's "Macbeth" with the Sachsische Staatskapelle Dresden. If we advance, there are a lot of logistics with the scheduling that will need to be solved, but as of now I am anticipating that I can do both "America's Got Talent" and "Macbeth" while only missing a few days of rehearsals. It's a bit chaotic to think about flying back and forth from Dresden, but it is a good problem to have. As a last resort, there is a cover who may be able to step in for rehearsals that I miss, but I shouldn't miss any performances, even if we advance. "Macbeth" starts rehearsals September 2, but doesn't open until September 14. If we are fortunate enough to make it through the top 12 round and into the finals, the finals will be right in between my first and second performances, so it fits in the schedule as well as it possibly could.
Q. Has your family traveled with you for these performances?
A. My wife was at the last round, and she is flying in from Michigan for today's performance. My parents and my brother live in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, so they will be driving in. My children are a little young for the show. It doesn't start until 9 p.m., so it is way past their bedtime. If we advance to the finals, I will have my wife bring my daughter Maria, because we both share a birthday of September 17, which is the date of the (AGT) finale.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I was born and raised in Bloomsburg, Pennsylania. My parents are from Sri Lanka and my brother was born over (there). They came to the US when my brother was 1. I did my undergraduate and graduate work at the University of Michigan. I then did my training at San Francisco Opera, where Jane and I lived for three years. When we got pregnant with our daughter, we moved Saline to be closer to my wife's parents, her older sister and her husband. It is invaluable to have family around, especially with my busy travel schedule.
Q. What brought you to U-M?
A. I picked the University of Michigan because of its high ranking engineering program. I entered U-M as a dual major in Civil Engineering and Vocal Performance.
Q. What was most valuable about your training at U-M?
A. Everything about Michigan was great. The quality of instruction is phenomenal, but more than that I met my wife when we were freshman in the University Choir. She ended up being my accompanist for voice lessons, which made me practice a whole lot more. I had no intention of pursuing music, but because of the quality of instruction I received from my voice teachers Daniel Washington and Luretta Bybee, I ended up reaching the point where pursuing opera professionally was a reasonable choice. I never would have dreamed that this is what I would be doing.
Q. What's been the weirdest moment of this experience so far?
A. Being recognized by people is still strange from me. The fact that people know my name and recognize me is incredible. We are having such a fun time doing this, and we know how blessed we are to be given this platform. We are trying to make the best of what we have been given.
Tune in to see what Forte sings tonight, and vote via AGT's website (up to 10 times per email address), Twitter (#voteAGT Forte, limit of one vote), or phone (up to 10 times per phone line; the phone number will be announced during the show). Voting rules are on Forte's Facebook page, and you can follow the group on Twitter at ForteTenors.