Five Questions For Sean Panikkar

By Brian McCreath

Q:  What was your first encounter with opera?

A:  My first encounter with opera was actually when I went to the University of Michigan; I entered as a double-major in Civil Engineering and Voice, but I’d never actually heard an opera. I had heard the Three Tenors concerts and things like that, but I’d never sat down and listened to an opera. My first teacher, Daniel Washington at the University of Michigan, gave me a recording of Wagner’s Die Walküre, with Jon Vickers singing and that’s really what got me hooked on opera, just listening to the sheer power and magnetism of Jon Vickers’ singing.

Q:  You have a wife and two young kids. How is it that you manage to construct this life and keep yourself sane, as a musician who is traveling all the time and singing with companies all over the country, maybe all over the world?

A:  That is the single hardest thing about this job. I think a lot of people assume that being an opera singer, getting paid to sing and dress up,  play the roles of other people and travel around the world is glamorous, but often times it’s very lonely. It’s very hard for family situations; and for my single friends that are singers it’s hard to meet people. One of the things that’s really important is communication. I’ve known my wife since I was seventeen.  I met her the first week of school at the University of Michigan.  We started dating at the end of our sophmore year of college.  So we had that time to develop a relationship and grow up together, which is a luxury that not everybody has. Immediately after we got engaged I went to the San Francisco Opera Training Program. And the first thing you learn is that, in order to make a relationship work through the distance,  you have to be able to communicate.  And so thank goodness for technology: cell phones. I can’t imagine doing this twenty years ago when there were long-distance charges. Skype now has been great.  And now I have a three-year-old daughter, Maria, and I have a newborn son, Mark, who is just a little bit over a month old. The hardest thing is leaving them, especially Maria now that she knows that her daddy is leaving.  But trying to Skype daily, be a part of their lives, and know exactly what’s going on. I send them letters through the mail every single day and that’s kind of like therapy for me. Every night I sit down and put pen to paper. I really adore my family and that’s the hardest thing about being in this business.

Q:  Your Metropolitan Opera debut is available on DVD and that’s kind of cool, but tell me about the growth of video, of theater broadcast, and DVD, and what that does to your approach, to your craft as an opera singer.

A:  That’s an interesting question. There’s a lot more pressure involved in performing when you’re in front of a camera.  I made my MET debut in 2008 as Edmondo in Manon Lescaut and as debuts go it was already high pressure enough. I had James Levine conducting my Metropolitan Opera debut, and on top of that it was going to be recorded for HD simulcasts all around the world, and later released on DVD.  They make a scratch tape at the MET just to make sure that the cameras are all set up. I sat down and watched the scratch tape before we did the actual simulcast. I just remember thinking, “Oh, I can’t believe I look like this here! I can’t believe I look like this there!” That’s one of the things that you have to really be aware of. Singers often record themselves singing; we’re kind of shocked that that’s what we sound like. It was the same way when I watched myself for the first time on video. There are a lot of things that I knew needed to be addressed when I’m acting in front of a camera as opposed to acting in front of 4,000 people in a live theater.  Right after that I did my European debut in, Mozart’s Zaide in a Peter Sellers production at the Festival d'Aix-en-Provence. That was also recorded on DVD. That had a lot more close-up shots, and so there are little things like the way your eyes move or when you’re looking at somebody and making eye contact with them: making sure you focus on one eye instead of shifting back and forth like you would in real life. If you shift then it looks you’re all of a sudden suspicious of something. There are a lot of little things you have to address and also with the emphasis on doing things more for, television there’s also the the factor of your appearance.  A lot of casting people are more focused on that and  right after this I’m going to sing The Pearl Fishers in Pittsburgh which requires me to be shirtless, so then I, of course, am focusing on my diet and exercise and there are just a lot of things that people forty or fifty years ago in opera didn’t have to worry about.

Q:  Along these same lines, not so much about the physical part, but along the media lines, how do you see opera continuing to appeal to people that are more and more drawn into new media, meaning Internet access or iPhones?  What are the ways that opera is responding to the changing technology in the way that people deal with entertainment?

A:  Well I think there are a lot of benefits to technology. I think the MET is doing a great job of reaching people that otherwise wouldn’t be reached through the HD simulcasts. The production that I did in France was also simulcast on the Internet, so people could watch it live at home instead of having to go to a theater or get it on DVD later.  I think that the opera company able to reach more people that way and increase income. The tricky thing for the arts in the United States, which are largely donor funded, is figuring out new ways to generate revenue, while expanding your audience without not giving the product away for free.

Q:  And finally, there’s a stereotype of opera: upper-middle class white people enjoying their night out at the opera. How far away is the reality of the opera world from this stereotype?

A:  You know, there are different audiences on different nights. For opening night of the Metropolitan Opera, for instance, there’s one crowd but then every other night it’s really regular people. I think a lot of people assume opera is elitist and don't give it a chance. When I was in the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera, we did a lot of educational programs where would go out into schools and we would actually do improvised operas. The kids would come up with the storylines and then we would act them out and change the texts of our arias to fit the story. The kids loved it. 

We would do performances of The Magic Flute in English and we would bring the kids into the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco. They would eat it up. Many kids don't get the chance to even appreciate opera. I think a lot of parents are not giving their kids exposure to it. So no matter what kids grow up to be, I think they’ll appreciate opera more if they’re exposed early.

Click here for WGBH Classical New England's story on the Opera Boston production of Beatrice and Benedict.

Beatrice and Benedict by Hector Berlioz
Opera Boston
October 21, 23, and 25
For more:

Photo credit:  Lisa Kohler


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Brian McCreath Brian McCreath


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