Singing Opera and Unexpectedly Famous: A Conversation with Sean Panikkar, part 2

This is the second part of a conversation began at the Glimmerglass Festival, whose facilitation is greatly appreciated. See Singing Opera and Unexpectedly Famous: A Conversation with Sean Panikkar, part 1.


[Below: Tenor Sean Panikkar; edited image of a Kristina Sherk photograph.]


Wm: We began this conversation during your run of Glimmerglass Festival performances of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”. Is the role of Tamino one you expect to retain in your repertory indefinitely?

SP: My voice teacher, Dr Robert White, is in New York City, but I regard “The Magic Flute” in itself a voice teacher. It is written almost entirely in the tenor’s passagio and one can crash and burn in the role. But if you are on top of your technique, Tamino is healthy for the voice. It’s even harder when you are fighting through allergies and in Cooperstown, NY almost every singer is dealing with the same issues.

Everytime I sing “The Magic Flute”, I find that it gets easier and easier in different ways and as my voice keeps growing, I find that I need to rein it in a bit when singing Tamino. I think I have done around 9 productions of “The Magic Flute” and it was one of those shows I was just getting tired of doing.

No matter how well you sing, or how well Pamina sings, all the glory goes to the Queen of the Night and Papageno because she has vocal fireworks and he has all of the comedy. Mozart wrote Tamino in a way where it is extremely hard, but when you sing it well, it sounds like no big deal.

What really refreshed my enthusiasm for Mozart’s masterpiece is when my daughter was old enough to see her first “Flute”. The last time you interviewed me at Glimmerglass, she was 3 years old and had started sitting through full shows.

[Below: Tamino (Sean Panikkar, center) charms the forest animals with his magical flute in Madeline Sayet’s production; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]


Francesca Zambello had programmed “The Music Man” and Maria got hooked on theater that summer. Since then, she has seen everything I have been in except maybe three shows. When I started to see the magical world of “The Magic Flute” through a child’s eyes, it really made me love the show. Now my son Mark is going to “Magic Flutes” and loving it and I am that much more excited to see it on my schedule.

Wm: Your voice is growing and it does seem that you are ready for bigger roles.

SP: Vocal weight and size are hard things to judge on my own. I have to rely on other people’s ears and many of them tell me that I should be singing spinto repertoire. I have been hearing that from the time I was a 22 year old at San Francisco Opera. I LOVE spinto repertoire, but I have always been more interested in vocal longevity. Just because I can physically do something, doesn’t mean that I should do it.

My manager, Bill Palant of Etude Arts, shares this ideology with me and that is one of the many reasons I have enjoyed my partnership with him. I have been offered a number of roles that were too heavy and a number of roles that most people would think are fine to do, but I wanted to wait a little bit.

I do want to start digging into some French repertoire, but I am patient. The beauty of being a tenor is that there are so many great secondary roles that I was able to bide my time and learn on the job when I was younger. When I was an Adler Fellow in my early twenties, there were several other singers training with me as young artists in their mid thirties. I feel really blessed to have done as much as I have at what is still a very young age for the repertoire that I am growing into.

Wm: Your daughter accompanies you on some of your opera engagements. How do you and your wife and family work around your professional obligations?

SP: Despite the fact that I was on America’s Got Talent, my wife Jane is by far the most talented member of the family. When she was an undergraduate at The University of Michigan, she was a trumpet major, but also in a vocal studio and a piano studio. Her master’s degree is in choral conducting. She really can do everything.

Jane has always been happier keeping her hand in a variety of different things. She is a professor at Concordia University in Ann Arbor where she conducts a choral group, she regularly conducts the musicals at Saline High School, one of the largest schools in Michigan, she is a music minister running multiple church services, she plays trumpet with the Dexter Orchestra, and teaches voice and trumpet privately all while taking care of Maria and Mark. It’s really amazing. She is a naturally gifted multi-tasker.

When we got pregnant with Maria, we knew that our life was about to change. For one, my schedule was about to involve a lot of travel instead of the daily routine at San Francisco Opera, and we were also bringing in a new person into the world. That is why we moved from San Francisco to Saline, Michigan.

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Tamino in Isaac Mizrahi’s production of “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of the Opera Theater of Saint Louis.]


Jane’s parents, Ann and Wayne, have been a huge help to our family, providing almost daily childcare and support. I couldn’t do what I do without their help. Jane’s older sister Alice and her husband Joe also live in the area and are on the regular babysitting schedule. Our extended family is a team. Jane is like a single mother for more than half the year, but her family is on a rotation that allows her to maintain all of these jobs while still being primarily at home.

As a family we always spend the summer together so Jane and the kids travel to whatever summer festival I am at and we have a lot of fun. Jane always comes for at least a few days to each job, but for the past three years we have studied the schedule and decided which jobs Maria could feasibly go to. I think in the last season she was on the road with me for about 5 months of the year. Sometimes Jane and Mark are with us and sometimes it’s just the two of us.

Wm: When the two of you are together, you seem to be very happy.

SP: The life of a performer is extremely lonely. Most of the year we are on the road by ourselves. Sometimes we get along great with all of our colleagues and sometimes we definitely don’t want to spend time with them outside of rehearsal. We work with people for a short time and develop friendships, but then we don’t see them for years. There aren’t that many jobs where you rotate through entirely different teams of co-workers every 4-5 weeks.

When I travel with Maria, I am just a happier person. I absolutely love being a father. Maria and Mark bring so much joy to my life. I can’t wait until Mark is old enough to sit through six hour opera rehearsals. That is no small feat for adults let alone children, but Maria has always been mature beyond her years. I remember taking her to “Don Giovanni” rehearsals right after she had her 4th birthday and she would sit and not make a peep.

We are homeschooling Maria and it works out perfectly on the road. Opera rehearsals usually don’t start before 11 AM and Maria is an early bird so she pops up by 6:30 AM. Having her with me changes the way I operate on a job, but I feel so much more productive when we are together. She keeps me out of my own head.

It’s easy for opera singers to hole up in their apartment or hotel and not leave because they want to “save their voice,” or simply rest. You can’t really do that with a 7 year old and having Maria with me makes me a much better singer because I can go out and focus on my job without obsessing all day.

She has now been in three operas. Her first show was playing my daughter in Verdi’s “Macbeth” when I was singing Macduff for Palm Beach Opera. She had to die in the show and I held her lifeless body while singing Macduff’s aria lamenting his dead wife and children.

[Below: Sean Panikkar (left) is Macduff and Joseph Dennis (right) is Malcolm in the 2014 Palm Beach Opera production of Verdi’s “Macbeth”; edited image of a production photograph for the Palm Beach Opera.]

Palm Beach Opera: Macbeth 2014-01-23

This past summer, Francesca Zambello cast her in the amazing world premiere of “The Odyssey” by Ben Moore (I cried with pride at every show), and last month we spent the month in Memphis where I was singing Tamino and she was a super in a really fun production directed by Alison Moritz.

Now that she is 7 we are able to actually sight see and hit all of the hot spots. We ate at every single recommended barbecue establishment, and went to all of the famous sites in Memphis. Maria now is in love with Elvis after our visit to Graceland.

We were studying the civil war in her history book so we went to The National Civil Rights Museum. She is learning in a very interactive way that many children don’t get the opportunity to experience. People have a misconception about homeschoolers not being social or around kids, and that is definitely not true with Maria. We always plug her into things and she is one of the most outgoing children I know. She is also just as comfortable talking to a 70 year old as she is with a 2 year old. She just loves people.

Wm: You have been one of the artists managed by Bill Palant, formerly of IMG. You are joining him in his new agency. How has he guided your career up to this point in time (besides introducing you to FORTE)?

SP: I touched on this a little bit earlier and also in our last interview, but Bill is one of the really great guys in the business. I have met so many managers, through opera and in other genres through FORTE, that are unethical. Many of them are focused solely on money and not on making art.

Bill genuinely loves being a manager because of the artistic side of it. IMG opened a lot of doors for me, particularly when I was starting out, but I didn’t sign because of the name “IMG,” I signed because of Bill Palant. Bill is the one that took a chance on me when I was a young tenor in San Francisco, so when he left to form his own company it was an easy decision to follow him.

The people at IMG are wonderful. In my last year or two with IMG I was co managed by Sam Snook who is fantastic and the management assistant that worked on my contracts, Andrew Gaines, is still servicing the contracts that were booked with IMG. Everybody has handled the transition really well.

What I love about Bill is that from the start we have always placed an emphasis on longevity over the big splash. I have a lot of friends who made the big splash and said yes to everything and I know for a fact that they aren’t singing as well as they would have, had they been patient.

Some of these singers are singing leading things in the top houses and I am happy for them. My focus was never on having the biggest or best career. I want to perform as well as I can, but ultimately I am doing this to provide for my family. The funny thing about having FORTE fall into my lap, is that there are so many people who would have given anything for an opportunity like that, but it wasn’t even on my radar because I don’t think that way.

When things come up, I attack them with enthusiasm. Michigan’s football coach Jim Harbaugh often says that he attacks each day with an “enthusiasm unknown to mankind.” I can’t say that I attack each day with that kind of enthusiasm, but I do show up to each job with an enthusiasm and thankfulness for the opportunity that I have been given. Bill facilitates many of these opportunities. Just like my extended family is a team, I have a professional team and Bill is a crucial member.

Wm: In our last conversation, you mentioned your interest in creating new roles in world premieres. You have since appeared in the world premiere of Battistelli’s “CO2” at Milan’s La Scala.

I feel truly blessed to have originated a role in a world premiere at Teatro alla Scala. Singing at La Scala would have been a big enough career milestone, but to sing in a world premiere just made it that much more special. It was amazing to walk out on that stage and know that Verdi and Puccini had been there and premiered works in the very same theater. That is like sacred ground for opera.

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Adam in Robert Carsen’s world premiere production of Battistelli’s “CO2”; edited image of a production photograph for La Scala, Milan.]


When we last spoke, one of my career goals was to create a role in a world premiere. Now I have one under my belt and two coming up back to back in the spring with “JFK” in Fort Worth and the title role in, “Shalimar the Clown,” for Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. It’s really exciting.

Wm: I am scheduled to review the world premiere of Little’s “JFK” at the 2016 Fort Worth Festival, in which you also will appear. Now that you have one world premiere under your belt and another scheduled, what are your thoughts?

SP: This actually ties into what I am trying to accomplish with FORTE. I firmly believe that the key to opera surviving another hundred years is to evolve. Part of that evolution involves producing new operas. “La Boheme” and “The Magic Flute” are brilliant, but think of this in a cinematic perspective. What if everytime we went to the movie theater we were stuck watching a cycle of classic movies? Classic movies have a place, but the new movies are what the majority of the present audience is going to see. Wouldn’t it be great if an opera audience got more excited to see a world premiere as opposed to their 5th “La Boheme”?

New works are the key to opera evolving, but I do think we as a community need to be focusing on subject matter that is relevant. Is an opera about climate change going to win a new audience to opera? It has a place, but what if The Met commissioned a legitimate Game of Thrones opera? I think that would generate more interest than anything else they could possibly do.

New operas also need to be something you want to listen to. So many world premieres don’t have pleasant music. What I love about “JFK” is that David Little has written a brilliant score that has really great melodies. Royce Vavrek, the librettist, has written words that are really touching. Even in the workshop there were scenes that just moved people to tears. I can’t wait to perform the show in a full production.

The nice thing about new operas is that there is no preconceived sound that the audience is expecting. I sing Rodolfo in “La Boheme” and I think I sing it fairly well, but for a large segment of people and even some opera houses, you need to be a prototypical Italianate Pavarotti type tenor or they don’t want you. With new music what you bring to the performance is all the audience knows. For “CO2” when I was singing the role of Adam they are hearing it for what it is without comparing it to the tenor that sang the role in the “golden age.”

Wm: Tell me about your experiences with “CO2”

SP: “CO2″ provided different challenges than a standard opera. The first issue was that we didn’t receive a completed score until two weeks before the first rehearsal. In the United States, new works are workshopped, often multiple times, and very frequently with the planned first cast. “JFK,” for instance has already had three workshops and I have done two of them. This is all in advance of our first actual production rehearsals in the spring.

Besides the newness of the music on the first day of rehearsal, Robert Carsen, our director, decided to assign me a second role in the show. Now, I found myself at La Scala and having to learn a very challenging aria that opens the opera. It was quite a whirlwind, but thanks to the outstanding music staff I was able to get everything ready to go.

Wm: The stage director was Robert Carsen. What was that like?

SP: This was the first time I had worked with Robert Carsen, who is amazing. When I work with a talent like Carsen, or Francesca Zambello, or Peter Sellars, it’s such a fulfilling experience. “CO2” was a success because of his vision in putting the opera on stage. He was very hands on with the creative process, often revising the libretto and asking for changes in the music. It was really like watching a master at work.

Wm: How did you get involved with the “JFK” opera project?

SP: When I was performing “The Pearl Fishers” with Fort Worth Opera, David Little and I were introduced to each other at a post show party. It turned out that we were students at The University of Michigan at the same time, but vocal performance majors and composers rarely have classes together so we never knew each other.

[Below: Sean Panikkar as Nadir in the Fort Worth Opera production of Bizet’s “The Pearl Fishers”; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Fort Worth Opera.]


This is one of my frustrations with music schools. There is little overlap across the different majors. Vocal performance majors have no interaction with musical theater majors either, which makes no sense. There are so many things that could be gained from having everybody come together.

David liked my performance of Nadir and was in the process of composing “JFK,” so he asked if I would be interested and I jumped at the opportunity. Once I found out who was in the cast, I was even more excited. Matt Worth, Daniela Mack, Talise Trevigne and Dan Okulitch, among many others are all outstanding singers and fantastic people. It’s not often that you get to work with an entire cast that is as solid as the one Darren Keith Woods has assembled for this world premiere.

Wm: Before that takes place, you and Eric Owens will revive your spectacular Glimmerglass success, Weill’s “Lost in the Stars” at the Kennedy Center with Washington National Opera.

SP: “Lost in the Stars,” is one of the most powerful operas I have ever done. I know we spoke at length about it in our interview three years ago, so I won’t dig into it too much, but it is one of the few operas where I break down crying onstage.

I always cry when I am singing Rodolfo and Mimi dies, but that is a little different. In “Lost in the Stars” it just starts flowing out of me as I am onstage observing the brilliant Eric Owens go through his arc as a character.

Wm: And the other?

SP: Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night”. It’s a newer work that I had the privilege of singing with Lyric Opera of Kansas City. It is one of the most amazing pieces of theater in the repertory. If you want to talk about composers who are writing brilliant music that deals with relevant topics that the mainstream audience wants, Kevin is one of them. My wife’s parents have been to almost every opera that I have been in and they are extremely supportive of my opera career. My father in law, while probably not a diehard opera fan, declared that “Silent Night” was his favorite show.

[Below: Sean Panikkar (left) as a German soldier and Craig Irvin (right) as his commandant in the Lyric Opera of Kansas City production of Kevin Puts’ “Silent Night” ; edited image, based on a Cory Weaver photograph for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.]


It’s so cinematic in nature that it becomes accessible to everybody. It stops being an opera and just becomes a drama unfolding onstage. It’s based on the true Christmas eve truce from World War 1. Just thinking about what those soldiers went through and the power of their unity celebrating Christmas is incredible.

Wm: Thank you for this very interesting update to our previous conversations. I look forward to seeing you perform again.