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Q&A with Tenor Sean Panikkar

Speaking with 28-year-old tenor Sean Panikkar, you get the feeling he could do pretty much anything he set his mind to. He shows virtually none of the stereotypical traits that tend to come to mind when we hear the word “tenor”—the extreme nerves, flightiness, vanity, and so forth. The onetime engineering student, who was a winner of the 2009 George London Foundation Competition, speaks quickly but always with thought and intelligence, and occasional flashes of dry humor. He’s been taking a slow-and-steady approach to his career, which he explained when we met at AQ Kafé early in February, just as he was about to sing a recital on February 7 with soprano June Anderson at the Morgan Library. It was also just a few days before Ariadne auf Naxos was set to open at the Metropolitan Opera; he’s singing the secondary role of Brighella in that opera. (The Met radio broadcast of Ariadne will be on Saturday, February 20.) It’s not his Met debut, though; that was in 2008, when he sang Edmondo in Manon Lescaut. Panikkar, who is from Michigan, talked about why he doesn’t want to burn out by taking too many huge parts too early, the importance of Jon Vickers, playing in pep bands in high school, and balancing family with a career.

Melick: Tell me about your recital at the Morgan Library this Sunday—how long have you been planning it?

Sean PanikkarPanikkar: I think it was April or May-ish of last year. And I was really wanting to work together with June Anderson to come up with a program that made sense.

Melick: For your part of the program I see that you’ll be singing Beethoven’s “An die ferne geliebte.” And some Hubert Parry songs.

Panikkar: I’m also singing Lensky’s aria, and we’re singing a duet together from Pearl Fishers—finalizing the duet just happened a day or two ago.

Jeff Cohen, who is playing for June Anderson, will play piano for all the stuff we are singing together. I’m not that experienced of a recitalist, so I really wanted to make sure I had more than just a final dress rehearsal with whoever I was working with. Jeff Cohen and June Anderson weren’t coming in until Wednesday or Thursday, and we’d only have time for one dress rehearsal. So when Ken Noda was able to play for my part of the recital, I was thrilled. I’ve had a few rehearsals with him, and he is just phenomenal.

Melick: When I think of “An die ferne geliebte” the names that pop in my head are baritones—Hermann Prey, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau both did it, I believe.

Panikkar: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau did everything! I think of tenors singing it. I have a great recording of Fritz Wunderlich singing it, and Jon Vickers used to sing it a lot on recitals. And what was interesting for me about the Beethoven is—I went to the University of Michigan as an engineering student, and also as a double major in music but not really interested in music. I had never heard opera. And the first opera singer that I heard was a recording of Jon Vickers singing Walküre, and once I heard him sing “Winterstürme” I was hooked. And so then I bought all these Jon Vickers CDs so I could listen to him. And one of them was a recital CD that had “An die ferne geliebte” on it. It was the first kind of song repertoire that caught my mind, and I was kind of hooked on it.

Then when I was doing my master’s recital Martin Katz, who teaches at the University of Michigan and has lots of knowledge the song repertoire, sat down with me for independent study to come up with a recital. And so I had some experience doing that piece. Historically, “An die ferne geliebte” is important in that it’s considered to be the first song cycle.

Melick: There’s almost no break between sections.

Panikkar: There are no breaks. And it was kind of a change for Beethoven—I’m not a musicologist—this was about ten or eleven years before he died, but he started to get into more through-composed things. It’s an interesting piece for me, being that it was one of the first things I liked.

The Parry songs are completely different. When I was learning these, I discovered there aren’t many recordings. There are a few—mainly British recordings that aren’t available here, or are very hard to get a hold of. There’s some very beautiful music, but I guess Parry was director of the Royal College of Music, doing more administrative things, and he didn’t get the respect that he probably should have as a composer.

Melick: People tend to think of Parry more as a building block for some later composers, like Elgar.

Panikkar: On the surface, it seems kind of like Victorian parlor music, but it’s really not. I was talking to Ken Noda about it. And he’s talking about how it’s actually really complicated, and it’s a lot more interesting than it first seems. So what I wanted to do with the recital was have something familiar, and have something that people might not know that’s also pretty. And English also helps!

Melick: Your recital is in that tiny performance hall in the Morgan—where I heard some of the London Foundation Competition last year. And some of the singers were overwhelming singing in that space.

Panikkar: It’s a very intimate space. For lyric singers, it’s great. But there are some big-voiced people in that competition, and I sat and listened to some people singing Wagner, and I thought the roof was going to come down!

Melick: And then you go uptown to Lincoln Center and you have to adjust to a much larger space. And that’s part of your job as a singer, you have to adjust.

Panikkar: Depending on who you’re working with, if it’s somebody that doesn’t work at the Met all the time, you have an experience where at first you rehearse everything piano, piano, piano, and then you get onstage and all the coaches say, we can’t hear anything. And you have to turn it up a little bit. Singing at the Met is a different beast than singing anywhere else, because it’s so big. So everything has to be a little overdone.

Melick: Back in college, you studied engineering. So in addition to a music degree you ended up with an engineering degree as well?

Panikkar: My senior year I stopped. I was a double major and I dropped engineering my senior year. It got to the point where I didn’t think I would be happy as an engineer. And people say it’s good to have something to fall back on, but I didn’t want to fall back on something I didn’t want to do. Once I had gone to summer programs, done the Merola Program, and I knew that other people in the business who knew what they were doing believed in me, that gave me the confidence to say no to engineering.

Melick: The musical world is so insular. When you explain to someone outside the music world that as a 28-year-old singer you’re doing really well but that right now it’s a mix of smaller and medium parts and that you don’t expect to do the really big parts until later, does that seem strange to them?

Panikkar: I was talking to a soprano colleague, who told me she was only able to support herself within the last two to three years. And she’s maybe 33, and I thought that was so strange. Now she’s singing meaty things at the Met. For tenors, you can get by singing secondary parts and survive. There are different ideas about career building, and there are plenty of tenors that are about my age that do leading things all over the place, and are content making a lot of money. And it works for them. When I was leaving San Francisco and talking to managers, there were a couple different managers that were interested in me, and I ended up going with Bill Palant at IMG Artists, because he was conservative in his approach to developing a voice. And he had no interest in pushing me too fast. Bill thought I should do maybe one or two leading things a year, and then in the larger houses I could do nice secondary parts, so I would continue to develop vocally, because 28 for a tenor is not that old: you’re still kind of exploring things, the voice has not matured yet. So it’s a nice pacing for me to do secondary things at the Met. Then after this I’m gong to Atlanta Opera to sing Tamino. Then I go to St. Louis to sing Lensky in Onegin and in the fall I go to Washington to sing Narraboth in Salome.

Melick: I was struck looking over what you’ve performed over the last several years, it does look quite careful—well-thought-out.

Panikkar: Yes, and that was a conscientious decision. It’s not for everyone—Bill treats different people differently. I know Joe Kaiser is one of Bill’s singers, and he made a big splash as Roméo in Roméo et Juliette in 2007. And that wouldn’t be for me. I would be petrified to enter the Met that way. I liked my way of doing Manon Lescaut at the Met with Levine; it was a nice secondary part, I got to sing through the whole first act, being on in the movie theaters, and it was a nice introduction for me. I just signed with a European manager, and I’m going to be going to Europe and starting to explore other opportunities there. More leading things at secondary houses, more secondary things at larger houses. So I’ll just continue to grow.

Melick: You’ve mentioned that you played piano. Was that your first instrument?

Panikkar: I think I started Suzuki violin when I was 4 or 5. And then I started playing piano probably when I was 7 and then I quit violin. My parents made me play piano all throughout, until I graduated from high school. And I’m glad I did it, in hindsight. I also played trombone. Going into college, and even during college, I think I was a better trombonist than a singer. I didn’t play in the symphony or anything, but I played in the basketball pep bands so I could go to basketball games and stuff, and I really enjoyed that. It’s a totally different scene.

Melick: I would think studying trombone would help your vocal training as well—support, breathing.

Panikkar: The breathing did help, but there’s a tension in your throat when you play the trombone. After I had been singing for a while and I went back to play—my wife is a trumpet player and we thought we’d try playing some things together—and the taxation on my throat just felt terrible. Now I have to be much more careful about the singing.

I was in choirs growing up, and my parents always thought I was lip-synching in choir concerts! They never heard me sing. And then I started taking voice lessons. A lady moved in to my town—she had been at Juilliard and trained for opera, and she used to teach in New York. She moved to my small town of Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, and she had nobody to teach, so she offered to teach for free. I thought, this might be some way to pad my resumé, to take voice lessons, do lyric choral competitions in Pennsylvania. So I took voice lessons and ended up winning state competitions.

My senior year, I had already been accepted at engineering schools, I wanted to go to Michigan, and my voice teacher said, we’ve done so much work, would you please just send in a tape for me? You don’t have to do it, but it will make me feel good if you get in. And so I sent it in, and it ended up working out—I was accepted into the music program.

Melick: So that was your first competition. And last year’s George London Competition was your most recent competition?

Panikkar: No. I did the Belvedere Competition in Vienna this summer. I was sick as a dog for it, but I got second place in the operetta division, and was a finalist in both the opera and the operetta division. But I couldn’t even speak … I was somehow able to sing. It was brutal. If it had been a proper audition, I would have just left. But I had flown all the way to Vienna. The panel of judges were administrators of different opera houses, so it was kind of like an audition.

Melick: In your time as an aspiring singer, and now a professional singer, how many competitions would you say you’ve done?

Panikkar: Not many. It’s kind of weird: there are tenors who sing the really flashy, competition-type things, and that’s not really me, so I’ve never really been much of a competition singer. When I was about 20 or 21, I did the Met National Council Auditions. Without telling my teacher. I had just switched to tenor. I only knew five arias. And they were things I shouldn’t have been singing. But I managed to get through to the regional level, and I got an award there. But I wasn’t ready to sing it.

Melick: You had just switched to tenor from …

Panikkar: From baritone. That was probably a bad decision to do that competition without telling my teacher. When I was in San Francisco they would never release us to do competitions. And then I did the George London competition.

Melick: Do you feel innately more comfortable on the opera stage, with a role to inhabit? I imagine it can feel kind of naked on the recital stage, where it’s just you and the music and the audience.

Panikkar: That’s a good way of looking at it. You are a little it more exposed in a recital. There are still the characters and the songs, but they’re not quite as developed, and there’s no costume and you don’t have a set to wander around, and you’re standing in front of a piano. It is different. But it’s so enjoyable. It’s a different kind of experience, and it’s something I’d like to do more of. And so when this opportunity came up, I thought it would be great.

Melick: Listening to you talk, you seem the opposite of the stereotypical flighty tenor—you seem calm and collected. I don’t get any sense that you suffer especially from nerves.

Panikkar: I have to put it away. It’s such a strange thing, because when I was in college and people found out that I was a music major, I didn’t even want to sing Happy Birthday. I thought everybody was judging me, so I would never sing anything, except when I had to. But now, it is something you just go out and do. There are plenty of singers here at the Met who are petrified; when they’re going onstage you can see them shaking. And there are people that will sing their entire roles in the dressing room before going onstage. Two or three times I’ve heard leading singers do that. I guess at one point or another, I decided that getting worked up and singing a whole bunch of times isn’t really going to help me once I get onstage. It’s either going to be there, or it’s not. I just have to trust that it’s going to be there, and if it’s not, I’ll just deal with it. It’s live theater, and things happen. So I just got over that nervousness. I am really picky with the way I do things—I like to record rehearsals, and I sit there and pick through everything and make sure everything is the way I want it to be. But once you’re in a performance, you have to let it go, and just do it. There’s no point in being nervous. There’s a nervous energy that helps, but there’s nervous energy that cripples a lot of people.

Melick: Do you have a routine before an opera performance? An hour before, 30 minutes before?

Panikkar: It depends on what I’m singing—I warm up a lot more for the secondary parts than I do for leading things. Because with leading parts you have time to settle in once you’re onstage. So you warm up as you go. For secondary roles, you’re a little bit more nervous about forgetting words, because you don’t have that many words to sing: if you screw up, that’s it! But in a leading role, if you screw up, you still have a lot more leeway to redeem yourself. So secondary things I’ll warm up a little bit more, make sure I have everything ready. If I’m singing a leading part, I try to avoid chatting too much. I’m pretty low-key when it comes to having routines. Many singers need to have their teacher with them to do their warm-ups.

Melick: You still have a teacher at home in Michigan?

Panikkar: No, now I have a teacher here in New York. When I was in Michigan, I first studied with Daniel Washington for my first three years, and then I studied with Luretta Bybee, a mezzo-soprano, and out to San Francisco I was studying with somebody else. In New York I now study with Dr. Robert White—who’s different from Robert White, there’s a Dr. Robert White and a Robert White, and they both teach at Juilliard. My teacher was actually Luretta’s teacher. Whenever I’m in New York, I’m always working with him.

Melick: You said recitals were something you want to do more of. It’s tricky, because you have to schedule recitals around your opera schedule.

Panikkar: It’s also tricky getting recital work. It’s not something you can just go audition for. I have one in Michigan in two seasons—the season following this coming season. There’s a group there that sponsors recitals, and they asked me to do one. But it’s hard to get recital work unless you’re a name.

There’s a small group of people who appreciate recitals. I have to admit I have been bored out of my mind at a lot of recitals. I hope I don’t do that to people on Sunday! In opera you have theater and there’s a lot to look at, whereas in recitals there’s just the person onstage, and if they’re not doing something interesting—especially if the lights are low, and there’s no supertitles to look at.

Melick: The next seven days you have a lot going on, between the opening of Ariadne auf Naxos on February 4 and your recital on February 7. With you spending so much time here in New York, did you take an apartment here?

Panikkar: Yes. I like convenience, so I’m right near Lincoln Center.

Melick: Do you have a favorite restaurant here?

Panikkar: I’ve explored the city some. There’s a place called Perilla in Greenwich Village. It’s run by the first-season Top Chef winner—I started really getting into cooking after watching that show. So my wife and I went there, and it was fantastic. Quentin Tarantino was even next to us, which was really cool, too. This was two years ago for my debut in 2008. There’s great food here. We had great food in San Francisco, too. I miss that a lot in the Midwest in the U.S. and Michigan in particular you see nothing but chain restaurants.

Melick: Is your whole family musical?

Panikkar: I have a brother who is six years older than me. He played piano like I did, but now he’s an oncologist. My family probably would have preferred that I become a doctor—my dad’s a doctor, my brother’s a doctor, my cousins are doctors or lawyers. But it’s a different mentality. My brother was born in Sri Lanka; I was born in Pennsylvania, and grew up differently than he did.

The music business is so weird. I have no idea how I was fortunate enough to be able to survive on singing. There are so many people who are much better than me who can’t get work anywhere. And there are people who are terrible singers who are working all over the place.

Melick: Do you think it’s luck? Or being in the right place at the right time?

Panikkar: There’s a lot of being in the right place at the right time and taking advantage of the opportunities that present themselves. Even people in San Francisco that I’ve trained with, it’s interesting to see how some of them have been so successful, and some have not. When you’re watching them training, you assume it might be reversed. Everything is so subjective, too. I’ve gone into auditions where I thought they hated me, and auditions where I’ve cracked, and they hired me. So you never know how that works.

George London WinnersMelick: Looking over the George London winners from 1971 to 2009 [Sean is pictured second from left, with other 2009 winners], you see a lot of amazing names—Kathleen Battle, Jill Grove, Dawn Upshaw, Bejun Mehta. Then there are many names most people have never heard of.

Panikkar: There are people who are built to win competitions who can’t do anything on an opera stage, too. There are a lot of people who lose competitions who go on to have amazing careers.

Melick: A competition can teach a singer something about the business, even if he or she doesn’t win.

Panikkar: I also think there are a lot of people who understand that this isn’t a kind of lifestyle they want. Now that I have a daughter, half the time when I have a job I don’t want to go. I love singing at the Met, but I’m not at home. For a lot of people they would rather have a normal job. But then again, there are so many pressures that can take you away from home.

At last when I’m at home, I’m there completely. I’m there in the morning, changing the diapers, feeding my daughter, and all that. And I love that. When they are visiting me on the road, she wakes up at about 8 in the morning, and we get up and see her for about an hour and a half, then we have to go to work, then I come back for another two hours later on, but she might be in bed. It’s really hard. 

In the evenings, when we were here in New York, I got the biggest studio I could get, but it’s one floor of a brownstone, so it’s really long. But there are no doors to close off anything, so once she goes to bed, the lights are out, and … we’re silent, we cannot talk! But right now, I haven’t seen either of them since the first week of January.

Melick: You’ll be singing in Ariadne with Kathleen Kim, who takes the high-flying role of Zerbinetta. I’m looking forward to that.

Panikkar: Kathleen is singing Queen of the Night in Atlanta when I’m singing Tamino. She’s great. She is so tiny! There’s one scene where she has to interact with a kid who’s 12. The 12-year-old wasn’t at the first couple of rehearsals, so Kathleen was practicing looking down at the kid. And then the kid shows up, and he’s the same height! Nina Stemme is also amazing—so wonderful. That’s a great voice.

I saw this production of Ariadne twice, when I was visiting. Diana Damrau sang it. I sang Arturo in her Lucia—that was great … oh yeah, I get to marry Diana Damrau, this is cool! Well, it’s cool until she kills me and comes onto the stage covered in my blood. Diana is so fantastic.

Melick: What do you like so much about Jon Vickers’ voice?

Panikkar: With Vickers, there is a rawness to it. He can crack all over the place, and it doesn’t ever bother me. Because it always seems like a dramatic thing with him. There are studio recordings where there are cracks and he decided not to do the take over. In the Peter Grimes studio recording, there are cracks all over it, and he did an interview where he was asked why, and he said, that’s what it was. They just released the Vickers Otello, too. He’s my idol.

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