As a soloist in the opera, Sean Panikkar has had to learn more than his fair share of foreign languages. Still, there’s never been one quite like High Valyrian. In the hugely popular Game of Thrones (GoT) series, Daenerys Targaryen’s handmaiden and trusted advisor describes it with reverence, saying “The gods could not devise a more perfect tongue. It is the only proper language for poetry.”
So when the trio Forte, of which Panikkar is a member, decided their second album would feature popular music such as the GoT soundtrack reinterpreted as classical compositions, they really had their work cut out of for them. If you’re sceptical, try belting out their first line: ‘Skorī dēmalȳti tymptir tymis, ērinis iā morghūlis.’ Literally translated it reads: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
When the Sunday Times last interviewed Panikkar, he and teammates Josh Page and Fernando Varela had made it all the way to the finals of America’s Got Talent. Though they didn’t win, the show propelled them to fame. “After America’s Got Talent, it was a whirlwind,” says Panikkar. Their first self-titled album was released on the Columbia Records label and debuted at #2 on Amazon’s Best Sellers list and at #1 on Barnes and Noble.
They followed the album’s success by headlining Carnegie Hall for Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat Foundation, performing at The National Tree Lighting for President Obama alongside an outstanding lineup including Renee Fleming, Mariah Carey, and Aretha Franklin, headlining their own residency at The Tropicana Las Vegas, and performing dates across the country.
Recently, they also saw a founding member – Hana Ryu – return. He had dropped out for the period of America’s Got Talent due to visa issues. “I actually replaced Hana in the group, so it feels really good to bring him back,” Panikkar tells the Sunday Times. “The group now consists of Josh Page, Hana Ryu, and me and we are having a great time together. We are all on the same page and great friends which makes tackling some of these new projects so much easier…Setting aside the soloist ego is the most important thing in making a group successful and that’s what we have done.”
Together, they dreamt up a second album. As fans will know, the GoT theme doesn’t have any lyrics so the group chose to take text from the show and set it to the theme song, which they then intertwined with Ramin Djawadi ‘Chaos Is a Ladder’. “Since we released the music video, a little over two weeks ago, we have reached over a quarter million people and most of those are in the 18-30 year old range which is much younger than the average opera fan,” says Panikkar with obvious pleasure.
Making the video itself, which fits well into the GoT universe, was an intense process. “We, as a group, had never filmed a major music video and we went all out.” They knew early on that what they really wanted was a castle, but that seemed like a pipe dream, right up until their manager found them two at Sands Point Preserve in Long Island, New York. Not only that, but there was a beach with a cliff overlooking the water. When eerie fog appeared on cue, they had the perfect backdrop. Costumes too were a priority – these they found at the Theater Development Fund’s warehouse. “TDF literally has every retired Broadway and Metropolitan Opera costume,” says Panikkar, “It was like hitting the jackpot.”
The shoot itself was demanding, with a full film crew and even a drone. “It took two complete days of filming with multiple cameras. We have hours and hours of footage that were edited down into the three minute video that we released,” says the tenor.
This is the first track to be released on their new album, which is titled ‘The Future Classics.’ “We are trying to reach a wider audience than we did with our first album,” says Panikkar, explaining that the goal is to “take the popular music of today and infuse it with Forte’s power and classical style…Our entire album is accessible to everybody and it’s a really fresh direction for the genre of classical crossover.”
For Forte, ‘The Future Classics’ is their first real shot at making music that reflects who they are as a group. While their first album was fun, Panikkar reveals that the tracks, complete with vocal lines, were pre-determined by Colombia Records’ executives. “So we literally stepped off America’s Got Talent and recorded the music they had prepared for us.” While they remain very proud of the release, they hope the second album will actually advance the genre, instead of just being “what everybody expects out of a group of tenors.”
This ambition is backed up by Forte’s growing skillset. Trio member Page studied music production, while one of his friends Matteo Neri, joined the team, bringing with him a masters in film scoring. “Between Zach and Matteo, anything musical that we can imagine comes to reality,” says Panikkar, adding, “it allows us the flexibility to stay extremely current and it saves us a lot of money because we can do everything in house. We are still learning, but the floor of our potential has been raised much higher and the ceiling is limitless.”
The same appears to be true of Panikkar’s own career. In the fall he took on the role of Molqi in John Adams’ controversial ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ at the Metropolitan Opera. Panikkar’s other commitments include the role of Nikolaus Sprink in Silent Night at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and a return to the Glimmerglass Festival singing Tamino in a new production of The Magic Flute. He also is back at Carnegie Hall in The Road of Promise, a new concert adaptation of Kurt Weill and Franz Werfel’s 1937 musical spectacle, The Eternal Road. Next month he heads to Milan, Italy to make his debut at the famed Teatro alla Scala in a world premiere production titled ‘CO2’.
“In between all of these solo opera projects, I have been in New York recording for our second album. I love doing opera and Forte so much that I don’t want to step away from either,” he says now. “They balance each other out quite well.”
Now, the group is looking forward to their new album, which they plan to promote in innovative ways. By pre-booking it, fans can contribute to the creation of the album. In addition to pre-ordering the album, you could buy merchandise, access to behind the scenes videos and updates that are only available to pledgers.
“It’s really fun because the fans now become involved in the entire process and they see what goes into the creation of an album from start to finish,” says Panikkar. “It’s a brilliant concept because it allows the artists to make the music they really want to create and gives the fans insight into what happens before they see the finished product on the store shelves.”
First published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on March 22, 2015. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix courtesy Sean Panikkar.