Singers / The Sunday Times

Sean Panikkar: Forte’s Winning Streak

On September 22, Sean Panikkar posted clue #1 on his Facebook page. It was a vector visualised as a graph and he followed it with a picture of a glass of orange juice (clue #2), a portrait of Dr. James Naismith who invented Basketball in 1891 (#3), a spade of coffee beans (#4), a painting of St. Nicholas and St. Patrick (#5), and a clock with its hands pointing to 5 (#6). A hilarious guessing game ensued among fans but by the appointed time (hinted at by the last clue) Sean was ready to share multiple pieces of good news.

Wowing their audiences: Forte at the America’s Got Talent finals, Sean Panikkar at right

It’s been just over a week since the operatic trio Forte made it to the finals of ‘America’s Got Talent’- and lost to dancer Kenichi Ebina. For Sean and his partners Josh Page and Fernando Varela the prizes – $1 million and a chance to headline a show at the legendary Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas – were beyond reach. Or so it seemed. In a string of announcements, Forte has announced that they’ve been booked at The Tropicana in Las Vegas for a special New Year’s Residence (clue #2). Before that, they will be at Carnegie Hall in November to perform at a benefit concert that will raise funds for Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Foundation (clue #3 marked the year the concert venue opened for business). Most exciting of all, they’ve been signed by Sony/SYCO/Columbia (clue #4) with their debut album being produced by Nick Patrick (#5).

When Sean writes to share the good news, he’s actually at Vector Studios (#1) where Forte have already begun recording their debut album which will be out on November 12. “One of the blessings of being on the show was all of the exposure we received. While we didn’t win the top prize, we impressed enough people that Columbia Records signed us to their label as soon as we walked off the stage,” says Sean. From where he sits typing, Sean can hear Fernando recording his vocals: “It’s a really hectic recording schedule and we are practically living in the recording studio.”Determined to make the most of the momentum they’ve built up, the group and their producers are working at breakneck pace – their first single ‘Caruso’ goes on sale on Itunes and Amazon tomorrow. And there might be more to come: “We have only been off the show a week and all of this has happened! It’s truly amazing. Hopefully a tour will be in the works after our album is released.”

The Sunday Times first interviewed the operatic tenor after Sean had taken a giant leap of faith and auditioned for the popular talent show alongside two guys he had met over the internet. An accomplished classical singer born to Sri Lankan parents, Sean had made an enviable career in opera, earning critical acclaim and awards for performances across America and Europe. At the time, it seemed like an unlikely twist for his career to take, but Sean was excited by the possibilities of taking opera out its rarefied confines and introducing it to an audience of millions.

“America’s Got Talent was such an unusual experience,” he says now, “This journey was never on my radar.” Having planned to spend the summer at home with his family, Sean found himself thrust into a challenge unlike anything he’d ever experienced before alongside people he barely knew. Uncertain of how the others would respond to the pressure, each was going out on a limb. Still, something clicked and they made it through the first round. Subsequent rounds in New York’s famed Radio City Music Hall helped the men bond not just as musicians but as friends. “We went from soloists to a group and from strangers to friends all in front of a television audience of 10 million!” says Sean.

It was the promise of these budding relationships that led Sean to enact his first cancellation in 10 years of professional singing so he could stay on the show instead of having to leave to Dresden for his next engagement. Knowing that a record deal with a major label depended on him staying helped Sean decide – making it to the finale proved he had made the right decision – but it was there they had what Sean seems to consider their biggest setback. “As soon as we finished the judges started making their comments as they normally do and Howie Mandel just started ripping singing as a talent,” says Sean. “That was devastating and such an absurd statement to make. He went on about how singers just need to sing songs which totally throws out the years of dedicated training that I have done in order to be a successful opera singer.” The group never got a chance to respond and the judge’s comments likely swayed many voters. For a group that had earned a standing ovation for every performance, this was a disappointment.

Sean’s family rallied around him. “My daughter Maria turned 5 on the day of the finale and she told me that because I didn’t win the top prize on the show that I was eligible to receive her top prize so it was actually good that I didn’t win,” he says. “She is so incredibly sweet and mature beyond her years.” It probably also helped to know that the $1 million prize was actually paid out over a 40 year annuity – about $7000 per member of Forte. While that isn’t shabby, it isn’t nearly what the general public assumes comes out of winning. For the group, the real prize will always be the exposure that came from performing week after week in front of millions of people. Sean knows the fans they won then will buy the album and show up at the concerts to come. It’s why he has no regrets. “Everything happens for a reason and God has a plan. The three of us were on such different paths and we just kind of smashed together in front of a national television audience. We are now on a new adventure that none of us could have imagined. It’s really special.”

Keep up with Sean online at

Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on September 29, 2013. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Sean Panikkar. 

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