Sean Panikkar had to do some soul searching before going on America’s Got Talent.
His dilemma was this: Should he, a gifted tenor who wowed Bass Hall audiences in April when he starred as Rodolfo in La Boheme with the Fort Worth Opera, risk “cheapening what opera is all about” by singing crossover numbers on a glitzy TV talent show?
“A lot of purists thumb their noses at this kind of thing,” Panikkar says. “And honestly, I was on the fence at first. But after a lot of deliberation, I decided to do it.”
Panikkar, a member of a singing trio called Forte, and his two fellow tenors are among the 60 America’s Got Talent acts chosen to advance to the New York competition.
Forte is scheduled to perform in Tuesday’s live episode (8 p.m. on NBC) from historic Radio City Music Hall.
Panikkar — who also has family ties to Fort Worth: His wife’s grandparents, Virgil and June Strange, live here — isn’t a snob about crossover classical music. But he did feel the need to weigh the pros against the cons. He ultimately opted in, because he thinks it will be good for the art form he loves.
“Opera suffers from a misperception,” he says. “There’s this idea that opera is only for the elite. But it’s been my experience that, when people give opera a chance, they enjoy themselves. There’s also the idea that, if you go to the opera, you won’t understand anything they’re saying. People don’t realize that there are super-titles projected above the stage.
“The key, I think, is to getting those people to put their foot in the door. And America’s Got Talent averages between 10 million and 12 million viewers every week.
“If we can introduce classical singing to more than 10 million people, if we can serve as a bridge in getting them from watching on TV to actually attending a performance in a theater like Bass Hall, that dramatically outweighs any negatives that the traditionalist can throw at me.”
But make no mistake. The $1 million prize that goes to the winning act is an attractive incentive, as well.
“Obviously that’s a big deal,” Panikkar admits. “But ultimately our hope as a group is that we advance far enough that we can get a recording contract. Then we’ll just see where the ride takes us.”
It already has been a wild ride that Panikkar never expected.
He wasn’t yet a member of the trio when Forte, one of approximately 75,000 acts to audition, tried out in Los Angeles. The original combo was Josh Page of New York City, Fernando Varela of Orlando, Fla. (by way of San Juan, Puerto Rico) and Hana Ryu of South Korea.
But there was an issue with Ryu’s visa, one that made him ineligible to compete on the show, which left Page and Varela scrambling for an 11th-hour replacement before the Las Vegas round.
They scoured management websites for opera singers, watched a few of Panikkar’s performances on YouTube, then decided to reach out to him.
“My manager was like, ‘I don’t want you to be offended, but there’s a crossover group and they’re looking for somebody to go on America’s Got Talent with them.’ He didn’t know how I would react. But I realized how much good it could do for opera, so it seemed like a good idea.”
Panikkar briefly met the others in New York a week before they arrived in Las Vegas. He was sick with the flu at the time of their New York introduction, however, so there was no opportunity to rehearse together until Vegas, a day or two before they were to sing for the judges.
“We were fortunate and blessed to be able to advance,” he says. “Now it will be up to people voting at home in order for us to stay on.”
Panikkar feels it’s worth noting that what Forte is doing isn’t opera. “It’s classical singing,” he says. “We’re singing more popular songs classically, in an operatic style.”
Panikkar, 31, lives in Saline, Mich., with his wife and their two kids, ages 4 and 1. He’s the only professional opera singer of the trio. He is so in demand that his opera schedule is booked through 2015.
That includes a return visit to Bass Hall for the 2014 Fort Worth Opera season. He’ll play the lead role of Nadir in Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers in April.
“Bass Hall is a total jewel,” Panikkar says. “Acoustically, it is amazing. And it has a classic look. It’s like a great European opera house. When I first saw it, I thought it had been there 100 years. I had no idea it was relatively new. It’s a phenomenally designed theater.”
That said, Radio City Music Hall isn’t chopped liver. “It’s such an iconic stage,” he says. “And not the typical stage that I would ever get to sing on as an opera singer. Of course, I can’t even wrap my head around the idea of singing for 10 million people.”
How the trio will fare is anybody’s guess.
“ America’s Got Talent has such a wide range of talent,” Panikkar points out. “There are sword swallowers, acrobats, magicians, dancers and synchronized swimmers. It’s such a subjective thing. How can you decide whether a sword swallower is better than an opera singer?”
Judging a show like this is infinitely harder than comparing apples to oranges. The acts are so different, it’s more like comparing apples to cement mixers.
“But I think what we’re doing is exciting,” Panikkar says. “Classical singing touches people in a visceral way. We have unique solos and then the three voices come together to make beautiful harmonies. It’s really special. I hope that America likes it as much as we like it.”