This past fall, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to begin teaching at the University of Michigan. One of the first people I met here was the opera singer Sean Panikkar, a University of Michigan alum who’s singing at the Metropolitan Opera in Ariadne auf Naxos this week.
I’m a bit of an operahead. (For those of you who have never been to the opera, if you want to try it affordably, I recommend my usual method: standing room tickets at the Met, which go on sale at 10 a.m. on the day of the performance. But I’m going to Ariadne courtesy of Sean. Many thanks, Mr. Panikkar!) Sean was the second opera singer I’d heard of who had some Sri Lankan background. And his tenor has gotten great reviews from the likes of The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini, as well as a host of others. I asked him if he’d be willing to do a bit of Q&A for the Mutiny. Here’s an edited and abridged version of our interview.
Can you share a little bit about your family background?
I was born in Bloomsburg, PA, which is a small town of about 12,000. My parents are from Sri Lanka and came to the United States in 1975. My mother is Tamil and my father is Sinhalese, which is why they left.
When and how did your striking voice first come to attention? What was it about opera specifically that appealed to you? How did your family feel about it?
I had always been involved in music from the time I was little. I played piano, violin, and trombone while also singing in choirs. I never considered myself musical, but it was one of the things my parents wanted us (my brother and I) to do along with sports. My parents often thought I was lip synching during choir concerts. They never knew I could sing.
When I was in middle school a Juilliard-trained soprano named Li Ping Liu moved into our area…. She had nobody to teach because opera isn’t something people in central PA really know much about. I thought it might be interesting to take voice lessons, but I wouldn’t do it unless somebody went with me so for the first few lessons my father and I had lessons back to back. At the time I was into Michael Jackson and Billy Joel so that is what I brought to sing. She made me sing it like an opera singer and I thought it was the worst thing in the world. Just imagine singing high pitched “hee hees” like an opera singer! Needless to say that didn’t last long.A few years later when I was a junior in high school I was applying to engineering programs and I wanted to pad my resume. In Pennsylvania there are choir competitions that you audition for. There are several progressive levels going from County Choir to All State Choir. I made it my goal to make it to States and I knew I would need help so I went back to Ms. Liu and we worked together almost every day after school. I would finish class, have sports practice, and then go for a voice lesson before coming home. I never sang at home, not even in the shower, so nobody knew I could sing. I made it to the state festival and sang my first solo.
By this point I had already been accepted to a bunch of top engineering schools and I had chosen Michigan because I wanted a huge school and athletic teams that I could really root for. Ms. Liu had put so much work into getting me ready for competition that she asked me to do her a favor and send in a tape to Michigan. She told me I didn’t have to study music in school, but she wanted to show me that I was actually pretty good. I ended up getting into the music school. As a result of getting to the state level I was asked to sing at my high school graduation. I sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and received my first standing ovation. It was a really special moment and probably the first time that people, outside of my choir, realized I wasn’t so bad.
At this point I still hadn’t ever seen an opera. I was just learning to sing in a more classical way. My parents were really supportive of the double major when I went to Michigan, but that changed later.
Did your family eventually put up resistance to your becoming a musician? How? How did you overcome that and decide to pursue it anyway? How do they feel now?
My parents were supportive initially because although I was a music major I was also an engineering major. Engineering was an “acceptable” profession. My mother had done some studies in architecture so she was more aware of that field. (She decided to stay at home while we were growing up and has never practiced in the U.S.). When I dropped engineering completely they were not thrilled. I heard a lot about having a backup plan…. I would have rather had a backup plan in music like arts administration or teaching than any job in engineering. My brother Rajiv,who is six years older than me, was extremely supportive and sometimes served as the go-between. My parents never came out and told me I had to do anything, but they let my brother know that they wanted me to pursue more than just music. My wife’s family has always been extremely supportive of my work. They went to shows when I was singing one sentence. It didn’t matter what I was doing, they were supportive. My parents have come around now that they know that this is a career that can pay the mortgage, the bills, and take care of a family.
You were a double engineering and music major at the University of Michigan (go Wolverines!). How did you manage this? Was there ever a real chance of your becoming an engineer? (At what point did you realize you could go professional?)
When I went to Michigan I was 100 percent sure I was going to be a civil engineer. My goal was to finish an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and then do a master’s in architectural engineering.
My first week of school many things happened. I took my first music theory class and thought there was no way I could be a music major. They were playing things on the piano and asking us to write down the notes that were being played. It seemed ridiculously hard to me and I wanted to quit. I also had my first university choir rehearsals and saw a really attractive girl in choir. That first week I got up the courage to introduce myself. She happened to be a pianist so I asked her to be my accompanist for voice lessons. This made me work a little harder at singing. Also that first week my voice teacher, Daniel Washington, gave me a cd of famous helden tenor Jon Vickers singing Wagner’s Die WalkÃ¼re. As soon as I heard Vickers sing I was hooked on opera.
Balancing music theory with computer programming courses was a challenge, but I took the maximum credits allowed every semester and I took summer semesters. I worked really hard and it definitely wasn’t easy. After summer semesters I would then go off to do summer singing programs. It was at one of these programs, the Seagle Music Colony, where I realized I might have a shot at doing this professionally.
My senior year I dropped engineering and focused just on music. I have to admit that I felt like my brain was rotting since I no longer had math and physics courses, but at the same time I realized I would be much happier doing anything in music than “falling back” on something I no longer loved.
I decided to stay at Michigan to do my master’s in music with Luretta Bybee, who now teaches at the New England Conservatory. That summer I applied to the famed Merola training program at San Francisco Opera. It is one of the most competitive programs for opera with applications in excess of 1,000 for 20 spots. I ended up getting into Merola and I loved it. San Francisco Opera thought I had potential so they invited me to join their two-year Adler Fellowship. So from 1,000 I made the cut down to 20, and from 20 I made the cut down to 5, all at the second largest opera house in the United States. At that point I thought this might be something I could realistically do. The Adler program didn’t start until January so during the fall of 2004 I spent three months in the Pittsburgh Opera Center. After two years in San Francisco I had opera engagements lined up and in short order I signed with Bill Palant at IMG Artists, I made my leading role debut as Alfredo in La Traviata for Arizona Opera, I sang the leading tenor role of Gomatz in Mozart’s Zaide for my European debut at the International Festival d’Aix en Provence, and I made my Metropolitan Opera debut as Edmondo in Manon Lescaut with James Levine conducting. Both my European debut and my Met debut have been released commercially on DVD so I have a record of those two milestones.
I know that right now you’re in New York, preparing to sing in the new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. What are the challenges of this role? What are your favorite things about it?
The current production of Ariadne has been around for several years, but it is a really great production. My manager, Bill Palant of IMG Artists, is conservative when it comes to career building. We have tried to do one or two leading things every year and then we fill the schedule with featured roles (a step below leading) where I can continue to grow and develop without having the weight of the show resting on my shoulders. Many tenors my age go from leading role to leading role and burn out quickly. The vocal chords are like rubber bands. You have to stretch them gently and then let them relax. If you keep stretching all the time then there will come a point where they won’t come back. That being said everybody is different. There are many singers that can start their career much more aggressively, but what we are doing works for me.
Since the Met is the top opera house in the world I sing larger secondary roles there and Ariadne fits into this category. I am singing the role of Brighella who is in a commedia del’arte troupe in the show. It’s a lot of fun. I get to wear a gigantic fat suit and the scenes I am in are really ridiculous. It’s a nice change of pace. My role also has some high notes with several top Bbs and two high Cs. It’s a role that is large enough to show people what I can sing without the pressure of being the primo tenor.
The Met has been really good to me and are giving me roles of progressively more importance. I have a nice role next year at the Met, but they haven’t released their season yet so I can’t really say what it is.
How do you prepare? What is that routine like?
The first thing I do when learning an opera role is I sit down and translate everything. If it is a language that I don’t know, like Russian, then I also transliterate it into IPA (International Phoenetic Alphabet) so I can actually read it. If it is something that is really familiar I will listen to a few different recordings. I try not to listen to one person doing it all the time, because you start to imitate what that singer is doing instead of making it your own. I write all of my text, with translations underneath, on index cards and I will walk around everywhere with those cards so I can memorize my words.
I also divide the opera into sections and start working on it vocally. I can usually see where the tricky parts will be and my voice teacher and I will come up with exercises or “tricks” that help me work on those parts. I do still have a teacher (Dr. Robert White in NY) which is very important. You always need a set of ears that aren’t your own because we hear ourselves so differently then the rest of the world.
I don’t know how much time I actually spend singing in a day. When I am not in rehearsal for a specific show, I usually don’t sing more than an hour or so in a given day. It varies depending on whether I need to cram or whether I have some time. I do tend to memorize and learn things quickly which is helpful.
I know you have a rigorous travel schedule and a young family. How do you manage it? What’s the lifestyle of an opera singer like?
The girl that I mentioned meeting the first week of school is now my wife. We will have been married five years in July. When I was training we both were in San Francisco and that was great. The year after I finished San Francisco I started to travel more and that is when it started getting hard. When we knew we were expecting a child we decided to move back to the Ann Arbor, Michigan area. Besides both of us being Michigan alums, my wife’s parents and my sister-in-law and her husband live in the area. They have been the best babysitters we could ask for and since I am on the road so much it has been a huge help to have family around.
The travel schedule was complicated when it was just me and my wife and it is even worse now with a child. I almost missed my daughter’s birth because I was at the Met in rehearsal for Lucia di Lammermoor. They were adamant that I couldn’t come late to rehearsal. On the second day the director had heard my wife was due literally any day and she released me so I could go home. In a miraculous series of events I managed to leave the Met at 5PM, board a flight at 5:45PM and make it to Michigan just as my wife was going into labour.
With a child leaving is hard. At least my wife understands why I am leaving. My daughter just knows that I am here one day and gone the next. My wife sent me a cute video asking my daughter where I was and she responded that ,”Daddy’s hiding.” It is really difficult to say bye to both of them and leave for a job. We do a lot of video Skyping to keep in touch, but it isn’t the same. The other day my daugher asked for a hug and hugged me on the computer. That about broke my heart.
The one saving grace is that when I am at home I am completely at home. I become Mr. Mom and do almost everything. I am with my daughter all day and I love it. It also gives my wife a break because most of the year she is functioning like a single mom. It’s hard on both of us, but we are a very close family and we feel extremely blessed to have other family members around for support.
When I am not singing my life revolves around my daughter. I think that is the experience of most young parents. Everything changed when she was born. She is so much fun. It’s different, but I wouldn’t trade fatherhood for anything.
What operas are your favorites? What might you recommend for a beginning listener?
My personal favorite opera is Verdi’s Otello (based on Shakespeare’s Othello). [Ed: Read the NYT review of Otello in Dallas here--Sean's a "standout" as Cassio!] I have always been captivated by the music and it was one of the first operas I was exposed to. I also love the old standards like La Boheme and La Traviata. For a beginner I think Don Pasquale or L’Italiana in Algeri are two solid choices. First of all they are comedies, and if you have a good cast they are really funny. The one thing that I tell opera newbies is that you don’t need to read a synopsis beforehand. There are supertitles (or seat back titles if you are at the Met) and it’s nice to discover the story as it happens instead of knowing that the soprano is going to die at the end. You wouldn’t ever read the synopsis of a movie before going, so why do that for opera?
I know opera singers often study a number of other languages… What languages do you speak?
I guess that depends on how you define “speak.” I grew up only speaking English. My parents only communicate in English so I was never exposed to Tamil or Sinhalese. As a music major we were required to study French, German, and Italian. I would say that I have a pretty good grasp of those three. I read French, German, and Italian and if somebody spoke to me in one of those languages I would usually know what they are saying, but sometimes it takes me a little bit longer to respond. I spent a few weeks in Austria in the summer and that helped my German quite a bit, but I wouldn’t call myself fluent.
I met you and your wife backstage at an Itzhak Perlman concert in Ann Arbor, through his accompanist and our mutual acquaintance, the Sri Lankan-born pianist Rohan deSilva. Have you connected with many other people of Sri Lankan descent who are musicians? (I know Danielle de Niese has also performed at the Met…)
When I was at Michigan there was another tenor who was half-Sri Lankan and half-Australian named Angus Wood. I believe he is singing in Europe, but I haven’t kept up with him. I of course know about Danielle de Niese, who is probably the poster child for Sri Lankan classical musicians. I have never met her, but several of my friends have worked with her. [Ed: I saw Danielle in Euridice and she was terrific!] I don’t know if there are that many of us out there. I think culturally music isn’t something that the Sri Lankan community sees as a valid profession. It’s not like being a doctor or a lawyer. I say that because my father is a doctor, my brother is a doctor, and my cousins are all either doctors or lawyers. At family events I am always the one to whom people say, “Oh,that is so interesting that you are a musician.”
Was there any South Asian community where you grew up?
There are a few Indian families in Bloomsburg and we used to get together with them. I was friends with the kids that were my age, but there was nobody in my grade that was anything other than white until about 8th grade. I never thought of myself as different than anybody because everybody around me was white. I sometimes joke that I am the whitest Sri Lankan I know, but that is the result of growing up in central Pennsylvania. I never missed it because I didn’t know anything different. The few Indian kids that were my friends, were my friends just like anybody else.
Has your family been back to Sri Lanka at all? Any plans to go? (Obviously the situation there is, of late, quite different than it was when we were kids.) As a kid, what, if anything, did you know or hear about Sri Lanka?
My family has not been back to Sri Lanka since they left in 1975. My mom went to India with a friend, but my father has never had a desire to go back. I think the racism they experienced left a bitter taste for my father. I have wanted to go back for some time, but it hasn’t worked out yet. The year I got married the tsunami hit so that ruled Sri Lanka out for the honeymoon. At some point I would love to go back with my parents to see where they grew up.