Rising Stars: An Interview with Sean Panikkar, Part 2

The facilitation of the interview by the Glimmerglass Festival is gratefully acknowledged. See: Rising Stars: An Interview with Sean Panikkar, Part 1.


[Below: Tenor Sean Panikkar; edited image, based on a Kristina Sherk photograph, for img_artists.com.]

Wm: Your agent is Bill Palant, whose conservative approach to building the careers of young tenors you have noted. Several of your colleagues have noted that successful operatic careers are built to a large extent on innate talent, but partly also to good advice and mentorship, and partly to just plain luck. How would you assess the contribution of talent, good advice, and luck in your own career?

SP: It starts with what God puts into your throat. Not everybody has a voice that can physically sing opera. Then one needs to have a strong work ethic. Being a working singer is a challenge and does require a lot of work, not just technically. So much of this career is networking with conductors and directors and doing the little things that other people don’t.

There are any number of singers who could sing whatever job I am up for, so you have to be able to set yourself apart somehow. Managers and agents can do a lot for you, but getting work is mainly a result of your relationship with a company or someone working at that particular company.

Singers who are hard working, and who are able to take advantage of the opportunities they are afforded are more likely to be successful. When I sing secondary roles, I don’t phone it in just because it isn’t as strenuous. I look at it as an opportunity to develop relationships and make a positive impression so that a company, director, or conductor wants to work with me again.

I met a lot of people at San Francisco Opera whose advice was not to rush one’s career. It’s particularly dangerous for a tenor, because so many companies are looking for the next Pavarotti, Domingo, etc.  I do not want to stretch my voice so far that it loses its elasticity.

My voice teacher during the Adler Fellowship, Cesar Ulloa, used to say that your voice is like a rubber band. You can stretch it a little bit, but if you stretch it too far it won’t ever come back. That is something that has always stayed with me.

Some of my manager’s singers move faster than others, but every voice is different. For me, slow and steady is better. I’ve been going for longevity and that does mean saying “no” sometimes.

Another thing that some singers have is a competitive nature between other similar voices. I’ve never been very competitive with other tenors. Either the company likes what I bring to the role or, alternatively, what another tenor has to offer. To dwell on the reasoning for a company choosing another singer usually isn’t helpful.

Singers are rejected from many more roles than they actually get and if you focus on the negative it will drive you crazy. Instead I try to focus on things that I can actually change like diction, vocal technique, dramatic choices, etc.

The importance of having a group of people you trust cannot be underestimated. I have a few teachers, colleagues, and administrators that I regularly seek advice from whenever a project is proposed. It’s important to have people like that along the way, in addition to your manager, especially when you are starting your career.

Each of them brings a slightly different perspective that is really helpful in making sure I am doing things in a smart and healthy way. I still regularly take voice lessons with Dr. Robert White in New York. There are a lot of things that we as singers fix on our own, but it is really valuable to have another set of trustworthy ears to help guide us.

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Tamino in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a Liz Lauren photograph for Chicago Opera Theater.]

I’m constantly trying to learn whether it is from other teachers or listening and watching how a colleague is handling something. Each singer is unique and some things that work for one singer may not work for another, but I am always open to new ideas.

I know that this is a business and, like any job, it isn’t always fun and games. The biggest sacrifice is time spent away from your family and your home. This is a means to provide for my family and that is my priority first and foremost. I try to take advantage of the opportunities that I am provided and I always try to be as prepared as possible.

Wm: You have spoken in the past about the personal significance to your family, who emigrated from Sri Lanka, when you sing the role of Nadir in Bizet’s “Les Pecheurs de Perles”. Do you feel your ancestry gives you a special bond with that character, when you sing Nadir, or do you think of yourself more as a Pennsylvanian singing an exotic role?

SP: I really think of myself as a Pennsylvanian, but at the same time I fully realize that I bring a more authentic characterization to the role, just by the nature of my background.

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Nadir in Bizet’s “Pearl Fishers” at the Pittsburgh Opera in the Zandra Rhodes production; edited image, based on a David Bachman photograph for the Pittsburgh Opera.]

The amazing pianist Rohan de Silva, who is Sri Lankan, was introduced to me through my aunt. He brought the Sri Lankan ambassador to the UN to one of my shows at the Met. I recently went to de Silva’s recital with Itzhak Perlman at the Kennedy Center and I was introduced to a whole host of emissaries and ambassadors.

I felt a little out of place because I am not all that knowledgeable about the history of the country, certainly not at their level.  There are a few Sri Lankans in the classical music world that are doing well (Danielle de Niese is probably the most famous) and at some point de Silva would love to coordinate an event where we all collaborate on a concert back in Sri Lanka. That is something that I would love to do as I have never been there.

Culturally there aren’t many operas that are written specifically for a Sri Lankan/ Indian. The only other thing that I have performed that is like that is Glass’ “Satyagraha”. On very short notice I was asked to learn the Evening Song from “Satyagraha,” and performed it at the NEA Opera Awards when Philip Glass was being honored. I hope that I have the opportunity to sing in a full production at some point.

[Below: Narraboth (Sean Panikkar, left) is horrified at the outrageous actions of Salome (Lise Lindstrom, right);  edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the San Diego Opera.]

Wm: Speaking of the role of Nadir, you have noted its challenges for a person whose voice is growing in size, such as yours. In a recent interview with another tenor, who has several roles in his repertory that you also sing – Tamino in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”, Don Ottavio in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” and Nadir –  who feels as his voice grows in size he is more comfortable with such lyric roles as Faust, Romeo, Werther and Chevalier de Grieux (Massenet’s “Manon”) in which he can sing more openly and with more power than in Mozart’s tenor roles. 

Do you see your voice going in that direction, or do feel you are moving into the spinto category of roles of even heavier weight?

SP: I do feel my voice is going in a heavier direction, although I hope to continue to sing lyric roles like Tamino. and I am singing Don Ottavio at the Pittsburgh Opera in Fall 2012.

Nadir is one of the lighter things I sing, but the challenge of the role is that it is written for almost two tenor voices. The aria is written for a lighter voice and the rest of the show requires slightly more full singing. It forces me to focus on singing softly which is, often times, much harder than singing full out.

More than that, sitting on E natural is not something that I enjoy as much as a lighter lyric tenor would. Singing Nadir and Mozart keeps me in good vocal shape.  I love to sing the lyric roles, but often times it is a matter of a conductor’s preference or whether the cast is of similar vocal weight.

I do agree that it is easier to sing roles in which I can sing more openly, but whenever I go into a show, whether the role is heavier or lighter, I try to pick a few technical things and see how I can improve my voice through the process.

Wm:  Over the past two summers, you have participated in the Santa Fe Opera Festival (2011) and Glimmerglass Opera Festival (2012). From a principal artist’s standpoint, what do you see as the similarities and differences between the two festivals?

SP: I personally love the summer festivals because of their unique relationship to their young artist’s training programs. When you have a chorus that is comprised of up and coming singers, it brings a different energy, because they are so enthusiastic. They are performing with a love for performing that a lot of singers lose as they keep doing this.

Training programs like these and St. Louis, where I was singing as a principal singer in 2009 and 2010, are really wonderful. The festivals are a fun environment to sing in and you often won’t hear opera choruses sung any better.

There’s a reason that the standard operatic repertory has lasted throughout the centuries, but it’s wonderful that these festivals do new and seldom performed works. At these festivals I had the opportunity to sing works that I may never get to do again like Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles,” for Opera Theater of St. Louis, Menotti’s  “The Last Savage,” for Santa Fe Opera, and Weill’s “Lost in the Stars,” for Glimmerglass.

One of the differences between the festivals is that Santa Fe has a stunning rehearsal and performance campus. That takes a lot of money to do. Glimmerglass is in the process of building a new rehearsal facility which will definitely help to centralize rehearsals.

Festivals perform in repertory and when multiple shows are rehearsing at the same time it can be a challenge to have the young artists everywhere that they need to be because they are often in multiple shows at once.

Glimmerglass is so rural, which I absolutely love. It reminds me a lot of the area where I grew up and there aren’t many other places where you will pass miles of farms on the way to sing opera.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Santa Fe and Glimmerglass is that Glimmerglass has a musical theater training program, in addition to their opera program, and they regularly perform musicals.

I wasn’t aware of the musical theater training program until I was sitting in rehearsals for “Lost in the Stars,” and they started doing the dance scenes. I knew something wasn’t right because the opera singers I know, can’t dance like that.

I was in awe of the talent that the musical theater kids had. It’s an odd thing, but musical theater singers and opera singers don’t usually mix. Even at Michigan we were always very much separated, but at Glimmerglass it is one big family and there is so much that we can learn about our craft from them and vice versa.

I really think it was one of Francesca Zambello’s brilliant forward thinking ideas to add a musical theater program. That integration is really helpful even in the way she plans her seasons. There are a number of people who are only interested in musical theater who will buy a ticket to something like “The Music Man.” Once they see how much they enjoyed that show, with opera singers like Dwayne Croft and Elizabeth Futral singing, maybe they decide to give one of the operas a chance.

Wm: The role of Kodanda in Menotti’s “The Last Savage” gave you the chance to play a comic role. What was it like to perform in an important revival of such a neglected work? Is this a role you’d like to do again elsewhere?

SP: I would do that role anytime, anywhere. In Santa Fe we had such a wonderful ensemble cast and I adored every person in it. Thomas Hammons and Kevin Burdette were absolutely hysterical. At rehearsals we would sit there in tears from laughing so hard and so much of their staging was their own improvisation.

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Kodanda in Menotti’s “The Last Savage”; edited image, based on a Ned Canty photograph, courtesy of  Sean Panikkar.]

Daniel Okulitch, Anna Christy, Jennifer Zetlan, and Jamie Barton were a blast to work with from start to finish and Sean Curran and his dancers were amazing. George Manahan is one of the nicest conductors I have ever worked with and the production was directed by Ned Canty which brought it full circle for me. Ned was the director of my very first opera, “Fille du Regiment,” back at the University of Michigan.

I don’t know if “The Last Savage” will ever be done again because of the expense of one scene that has dozens of soloists, but I would love to do it.

Wm:  You showed your Verdian tenor potential as Ismaele in Thaddeus Strassberger’s provocative production of “Nabucco” at Washington National Opera. I found Strassberger’s total concept, including his having the cast lead the audience in singing Va pensiero at the final curtain to be imaginative and effective, even though the often combative Washington Post reviewer dismissed it as “karaoke”. What was it like working in Strassberger’s “Nabucco”?

SP: This was my second time working with Thaddeus. The first time was my first professional leading role in 2008 with the Arizona Opera in their production of Verdi’s “La Traviata.” Working with him then and now is quite different.

Four years ago in Phoenix, he was taking over another production and I was so green. It was such a huge learning experience for me.  With his production of “Nabucco” at the Washington National Opera, the production was his baby start to finish and the results were spectacular.

Strassberger’s desire is to make everything he does meaningful. I love when art isn’t done just for art’s sake, but because of something deeper. What I loved was his attention to detail and making the operatic experience as authentic as possible.

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Alfredo in Verdi’s “La Traviata” in the Thaddeus Strassberger production in Phoenix; edited image, based on a Scott Humbert photograph for Phoenix Opera.]

Half of the sets were painted in the same studio as Verdi’s original production from 1842. You could trace the lineage of the artists back to the original La Scala production. He was intentionally staging it as it would have been staged then, even if it played against a lot of his instincts as a director and I think that resulted in an incredibly authentic production.

Wm: I saw you in the first Glimmerglass performance of Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” in the second lead part to a very emotional  portrayal of Stephen Kumalo by Eric Owens. It could be argued your role of the Leader is one of the greatest successes so far in your career. Would you agree with that assessment? Did you find special meaning in Weill’s musical drama?

SP: It’s hard to define success in opera. Sometimes success is when an audience is moved because of the story you have just told. Sometimes success is because technically something has improved vocally or theatrically and you have learned something about your craft.

Sometimes everything comes together and you have improved as a performer, a singer, and the audience leaps to their feet. That isn’t always the case, but that’s what happened in “Lost in the Stars.”

Like Thaddeus Strassberger, Tazewell Thompson, the director of “Lost in the Stars”, wants to spark a discussion. He wants to make you think about something more than just pretty music.

The audience was regularly moved to tears and even the performers on stage had to fight back tears because of the power of the story we were telling. Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson were masterful in their adaptation of Alan Paton’s novel Cry, the Beloved Country, and it was really moving for us to tell their story.

It is an amazing feeling when you know the audience is completely invested in what you, as a cast, are collectively trying to portray. Those moments where, instead of applause, there is palpable silence are so special. It makes us as performers feel that we are doing valuable work.

My parents grew up in Sri Lanka which for centuries has been plagued by racial conflict. When we moved to Pennsylvania it allowed me to grow up in a community where, despite my differences, I was never treated differently. That is something that my parents didn’t experience growing up on either side of the Tamil/Sinhalese racial divide.

The South African racial conflicts portrayed in “Lost in the Stars,” were really moving for me, not because I had experienced that racism, but because I have been blessed to not experience that racism by virtue of of a father who was willing to leave his homeland and come to the US.

I was moved to tears when the chorus sang A Bird of Passage on opening night.  Prior to that I had never genuinely cried on stage before. The message of forgiveness was really moving.

By the end of the show almost everybody in the house and on stage was in tears.  It’s another example of something that moves beyond art presented simply for the sake of entertainment, and nights like that are extremely special.

Wm: As a former Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera, I will ask you a question based on Kurt Herbert Adler’s mentorship of a young Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti. I’ve noted that in a ten year period, Adler mounted six productions in San Francisco for Pavarotti to sing six roles, each for the first time in his career. One of the questions that I’ve posed to several artists recently,  is if there should appear a K. H. Adler in your life offering you six productions for new roles over a ten year period, what roles would you choose?

SP: First and foremost, I would love to sing a world premiere where the composer knows I’m going to sing a specific role. I have thoroughly enjoyed singing newer works like Ricky Ian Gordon’s “The Grapes of Wrath” and Corigliano’s “Ghosts of Versailles.”

The rehearsal process is my favorite part of performing opera. To take that a step further and to be able to be part of a role’s creation would be really fun. In fact, there are two world premieres penciled into my future schedule so hopefully they will come to fruition.

Of the established “normal” roles, I would love to do the title roles of Massenet’s “Werther” and Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman”, Don Jose in Bizet’s ”Carmen”, Cavaradossi in Puccini’s “Tosca”, Pinkerton in Puccini’s “Madama Butterfly”, and Jenik in Smetana’s “Bartered Bride”.

Many of those are things that on the surface would appear to be heavier repertoire , but they are also roles that have been sung by a wide range of tenors from lyrics to heldentenors.

Wm: Thank you, Sean.

SP: Thank you.


For my recent reviews of performances in which Sean Panikkar appeared, see: Eric Owens is Vocally Powerful, Dramatic and Emotional in Kurt Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 22, 2012, and also,

Strassberger’s Verdi-Year “Nabucco” – Leo An, Csilla Boross Are Magnificent in Inventive Production – Washington National Opera, May 15, 2012, and also,

Loving “The Last Savage”: Over the Top Menotti Charms at Santa Fe Opera – August 5, 2011.