When Sean Panikkar became the first person of South Asian descent to play Mahatma Gandhi in Philip Glass’ Satyagraha, it was the realisation of a lifetime’s dream. For the role, Sean had to shave his head, and learn how to inhabit the stillness and restraint that a portrayal of Gandhi called for. The performance itself – which demanded he stay in between the lower and middle part of his voice, rather than soar into the high notes so familiar to a tenor – stretched his skill and determination.
To work with Glass’ complex yet subtle score, he found himself counting and having to remember number sequences, repeats and very minor rhythmic variations, even as he delivered his lines in Sanskrit. And yet, Sean says Satyagraha might just be his favourite opera ever. “Gandhi never leaves the stage for the 3 1/2 hour show so it’s an exercise in being actively present at all times,” he tells the Sunday Times. “It’s unlike any show I have ever been in, but it was also one of the most personally fulfilling ones.”
This is in part because Sean saw his own history reflected in the story. His grandfather hailed from the Indian state of Kerala and when he learned the costumes in the production’s final act had been sourced from there, it added to how extraordinary the moment felt.
The other actors, perhaps used to playing opposite a white man spray painted with tanning lotion, would confess that having someone of South Asian descent added a discomfiting layer of reality. Says Sean now: “As the first brown person to sing Gandhi, it brought an extra level of emotion to some of the oppressive scenes that doesn’t necessarily come across quite as powerfully when a white singer is doing it.”
Satyagraha, which was staged in November 2018 was the conclusion to what has been an incredible year for this talented performer. Highlights from Sean’s 2017-18 season included his Salzburg Festival debut as Dionysus in a new production of Henze’s The Bassarids and his Madrid debut in concert performances with the Spanish National Orchestra and Choir.
He would play Don José in a production of Carmen, and Greenhorn/Ishmael in Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick. Additional appearances of the season include JFK with Opéra de Montréal, The Summer King at Michigan Opera Theatre, and Handel’s Messiah with the Ann Arbor Symphony. In 2019, he will make opera debuts in London, Berlin, Amsterdam, Hamburg, and will return to Aix en Provence.
And somewhere in the middle of all this, the music brought him home, to Sri Lanka.
On Thursday, Sean joined soprano Tharanga Goonatilleke and pianist Rohan De Silva on the Lionel Wendt stage for ‘A Celebration of Song’ in aid of the Sunera Foundation. Rohan is a personal friend, but Sean’s primary ties to the country are really through his parents: his father is of mixed Sinhalese and Indian heritage and his mother is a Sri Lankan Tamil.
“This is my first time visiting and I have already fallen in love with my homeland,” he says, explaining that he made it a point to drive by the houses that his mother and father grew up in, which left him with a visual from his own history that resonated deeply. “As soon as we landed it felt surreally like I naturally belonged here,” he adds ruefully, “it’s the first time I have ever been somewhere where I am not a minority.”
Though all his close relatives now live in the US, Sean is discovering something all Sri Lankans know – that somehow, everyone here is connected to everyone else. “We had a rehearsal at a house where the husband’s sister is married to my uncle’s brother and the wife had been a student of my grandfather,” he says. “To have those kinds of family connections really amazed me.”
His stint in Colombo comes at a time when the performer is becoming better known across the world. Having made his name largely in the United States, Sean is now beginning to work more in Europe. Referring to his recent role as Dionysus, the tenor shares his conviction that the performance could be a career-defining moment. Already his schedule for the next two years is almost exclusively at top tier opera companies in Europe and he is booked through to 2022.
It’s quite an achievement, especially when you consider it is happening in parallel with Sean’s popular success as a member of Forte. The classical cross-over operatic pop trio made their name when they appeared to wild acclaim on the eighth season of America’s Got Talent in 2013. Sean says it catapulted him to fame in a way that he was quite unprepared for: he was used to performing for crowds of 2,000 to 4,000 people at operas, but with AGT it was more like 12 million. “That kind of exposure is hard to quantify until you are walking outside and people recognize you,” he says.
The group finished fourth in the competition but stepped off the stage to find a representative of Columbia Records waiting for them. They would go on to release two albums, and headline their own show in Las Vegas. They also performed at Carnegie Hall and visited the White House, when Barack Obama was President. Sean still seems a little in awe, describing the opportunity to meet a sitting US President as a highlight of his career. “In the short time I spent with him he completely made me feel like one of his good friends. It’s an incredible quality of his.” The cherry on top were the artists sharing the stage – Aretha Franklin and Mariah Carey.
In the years since, Forte has only gone from strength to strength. In fact, just before Sean flew to Sri Lanka, he wrapped a run of four sold-out Forte concerts in Florida, and says the group is planning to record a third album in the near future.
Meanwhile, the singer was glad his wife Jane – a music and chorus director and teacher working in Michigan –chose to accompany him on this trip to Sri Lanka. His family anchors Sean, and even though he is forced to spend weeks away from home, he finds ways to stay connected – his Instagram page is crowded with laughing pictures of their children Maria (10) and Mark (7). Now he says with pride that they are following in their parents’ footsteps, and are both learning instruments and performing. “Music is definitely in our family.”
Published in the Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on February 24, 2019. By Smriti Daniel.