Americans love a good success story. With all the bad news in the world today, “feel-good” stories resonate with us. We love to hear about a person or persons who seemingly “come(s) out of nowhere” to be successful. It’s nice to see hard work, talent, and persistence be rewarded. Such is the case with Sean Panikkar and the Forte Tenors. Often, as the expression goes, truth is stranger than fiction. If one were to present this story to a Hollywood producer he would laugh you out of his office.
Panikkar was born and raised in Bloomsburg, PA. His parents had emigrated to the US from Sri Lanka in 1981. His father and brother are both physicians at the prestigious Geisinger Medical Center in Bloomsburg. With a familial background like that, one might wonder how come Sean did not become a physician himself. Well, his once-in-a-lifetime musical talent, in particular his spectacular voice, got in the way. One might say “a funny thing happened to Sean on his way to Med School.”
When he was in elementary and Junior High School his family was so skeptical of his singing ability that when they heard him sing with the school chorus, they thought he was lip-synching. They thought “we’re a family of doctors. Where did he get this exceptional musical talent from?” Eventually, he became a star performer in high school. He trained with Li Ping Liu, a renowned Julliard-trained soprano. He went to the University of Michigan to study engineering, but at some point he transferred to the School of Music, Theatre and Dance where he earned both a Bachelors and a Masters Degree in vocal performance. Later, he trained with the San Francisco Opera and, eventually, became an Adler Fellow with the company. In addition, he has performed several roles with the Metropolitan Opera.
As if the above-described story isn’t enough, it is surpassed by the manner in which Sean actually became a member of the Forte Tenors and the group’s resultant success. Briefly, the Tenors were competing in “America’s Got Talent,” and one of their performers developed Visa problems, which necessitated him leaving the country. The remaining two members of the group, Josh Page and Fernando Varela, commenced scouting desperately for a replacement. Time was exigent as the competition was already underway. They literally found Sean on U-Tube. At first, they had difficulty convincing him to join their group as Sean already had a successful solo career, but, in the end, they did. With only one hour of rehearsal time they got through their next performance. The group became extremely successful, reaching the finals before being eliminated.
One indication of their success was that they received a 12-minute ovation after one of their performances, which was the longest ovation in the history of “America’s Got Talent.” Another was that when they were finally eliminated in the finals the result was very controversial. Many people thought they were “robbed,” including my wife, who is a fervent devotee of the show.
Such is the risk when the fans vote, not the experts. Often, the best performer doesn’t win. Past winners on this show as well as the longer-running “American Idol,” for that matter, have had mixed success in their subsequent careers. On the other hand, former “AI” non-winners, such as Constantine Maroulis and Jennifer Hudson, have been very successful. Maroulis has appeared on TV and as a leading man in two hit Broadway shows – “Rock of Ages,” for which he received a Tony nomination, and “Jekyl and Hyde.” Hudson has won an Academy Award for a supporting role in “Dreamgirls” and a Grammy.
In retrospect, losing was the best thing that could have happened to Forte. Instead of being bound by a restrictive contract to the show’s producers, they were free to sign with whomever they chose. In point of fact, a representative of Sony/Columbia Records was literally waiting off-stage to sign them up asap. Their first album has been a rousing success, appearing on the Billboard Classical Albums chart for 16 weeks and reaching number three.
In addition, they have had a successful concert tour. They have appeared at Carneigie Hall, headlined a solo show in Las Vegas and performed before the President. All in all, this was a clear case of “winning by losing.”
As a final ironic touch, recently Forte performed before a sellout crowd at Bloomsburg University. It was a phenominal concert with a 78-piece orchestra. That’s right – 78 pieces. Many in the audience, including family, friends and former teachers, had known Panikkar since he was in grade school. The group was performing in the very same arena in which Panikkar had attended his high school graduation ten years earlier. In addition, he sang the same song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” he had sung on that occasion. His voice is so powerful that he sang without a microphone. Yes, truth is, indeed, stranger than fiction.