Our esteemed partner company Opera Carolina is continuing its season, and after the success of an excellent The Barber of Seville, we are being treated to another crowd favorite: La traviata. Due to prior commitments we won’t be able to attend the opening matinée but will attend the last show on January 28th to publish our review. We are doing three mini-interviews with the principal artists: in the title role of Violetta, the great soprano Elizabeth Caballero, our three-times interviewee who is already a favorite of the Charlotte public (she sang Nedda in Pagliacci and Zemfira in Aleko last season); tenor Sean Panikkar as Alfredo who commands an impressive career, and baritone Reginald Smith Jr, the 2015 National Council Auditions winner, in the role of Germont.
The opera will be given in Italian with English surtitles. The run has three shows: Sunday January 22, 2017 at 2 PM, Thursday the 26th at 7:30 PM, and Saturday the 28th at 8 PM at the Blumenthal Performance Arts Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. For tickets, click here. We’ve been covering Opera Carolina for years and the company always presents compelling productions, well sung and well conducted (Maestro Meena will be at the podium which accounts for guaranteed quality). In terms of casting, it doesn’t get any better than that! So dear reader, don’t miss it! For more information on the show, click here.
Sean Panikkar is not only an outstanding operatic tenor with a remarkable career with roles in many prestigious houses and several world premieres, but he is also known to the larger public for having been a finalist in America’s Got Talent. Learn all about the singer by visiting his website: click here. His answers below are very interesting.
Opera Lively – The role of Alfredo is everything a tenor can dream of: young, impetuous, passionate, tortured… It is a beautiful arc. Please tell us about the psychological aspects of your character and how you approach them in terms of walking the fine line to avoid overacting while connecting with the public through the emotional side of this young man.
Sean Panikkar – I completely agree. Alfredo as a character has a really nice arc and Verdi’s writing really lends itself perfectly to the characterization. The most important thing is that all of Alfredo’s emotions are very genuine and relatable so I approach the character in a very real way.
Opera Lively – One of my favorite moments in all of opera is “Un dì felice, eterea”, the moment when Alfredo declares his love at first sight for Violetta, telling her about the day when he saw her passing by for the first time. In this aria, his halting, self-conscious phrases expand after 40 seconds into a lush melody that comes to represent their love and which reappears throughout the opera. He says that his love is mysterious and noble (“misterioso, altero” – the love Leitmotif). I melt when I listen to it, every time. Please tell us about your relationship with this aria and how you go about singing it. Add if you will to your answer any other vocally challenging or special moments you see in this vocal score.
Sean Panikkar – This particular moment is one of the most beautiful sections in all of opera. Verdi wrote it in such a simple way, but it really resonates emotionally. My children are 8 and 5 and I even catch them singing it while playing. It’s that kind of accessibility that really makes La traviata so special. Whenever I sing any role, I try to find relatable moments and, as I mentioned earlier, the character of Alfredo is full of them. I met my wife on the first day of freshman year at The University of Michigan. It was love at first sight across a choral rehearsal room so I can completely understand what Alfredo is experiencing emotionally in this moment. On the flip side of that, when emotions feel so real, it is easy to allow that emotion to negatively affect the way you sing, particularly in angry and tortured moments. I try to allow the emotions to color my sound in a healthy way. It’s also so hard to cry and sing, but La traviata really pulls on my heart strings in Act 3.
Opera Lively – One of the problems with singing Alfredo is the fact that the role is victim to its own wild popularity. It is done so much all over the world that it is hard to make it new again and unique. How do you handle this issue?
Sean Panikkar – The thing I always try and remember is that there are audience members who have never seen a particular show. Whether I am doing a world premiere where nobody has seen it, or I am doing The Magic Flute and only ten people in the audience are newbies, it is a new experience for somebody. In opera, and live theater in general, the cast is always different. I have performed La traviata before, but with different singers, a different conductor, and in a different production. We all have unique voices and no two singers sound exactly alike, so while the music may not be “new,” any live performance of La traviata will always be unique.
Opera Lively – Another aspect of the well-deserved popularity of La traviata is the fact that literally hundreds and hundreds of the greatest tenors in all operatic history have sung it at one point or another in their careers. It is always a fun exercise to talk about one’s favorite recordings in audio or video, and why. Who are your favorite Alfredos across history, the ones most inspirational for you, and what are the musical reasons for your choices?
Sean Panikkar – I am such an opera junkie so I have heard pretty much every recording of La traviata. When I first discovered opera in college (I was late to the game), I checked out every recording at the library. I love different things about different singers performing the role, but my favorite recording is probably of Bergonzi singing with Prêtre. I am also partial to di Stefano, Gedda, Kraus, and Domingo. The great thing about Alfredo is that it has been sung by such a wide variety of tenors and each tenor brings something special to the role. With some singers I love listening specifically for the emotion that translates, even in a recording, and for others I listen to the technical mastery. It’s also fun to hear how each of these tenors, who are of wildly different vocal weights, tackle different sections using their unique strengths.
Opera Lively – Oh boy, your performance history is so incredibly interesting that I’d love to ask you thirty questions about it, but unfortunately we need to keep it short for the sake of your time and to keep this mini-interview focused for the readers. I am a big lover of contemporary opera and music, and I’m very pleased to see how active you’ve been in keeping the art form alive. Often the audiences crave the classics and are slow to warm up to contemporary music, which is a pity but is a phenomenon that every musical movement had to face when it was introduced to the public (everything was new at one point before becoming familiar and accepted). Among your various performances of contemporary opera, please recommend to our public a couple of the ones you consider to be most accessible and likely to be well received. I see for example that you were part of Silent Night, an opera I love (I attended it live in Philadelphia and interviewed the composer extensively). Another one I uphold in great esteem is The Death of Klinghoffer – it must have been very interesting to be part of its Met recent performance with all the controversy surrounding it. I’m highly curious about CO2, Shalimar the Clown, The Summer King, and JFK.
Sean Panikkar – I absolutely love singing modern music, but it is unfortunately hard to recommend shows to an audience because so few companies are willing to do a new work unless it is a world premiere. It’s really a shame, but new operas don’t often get performed a second or third time which is why so few settle into the repertory. Silent Night is an exceptional piece of theater that is powerful in ways that need to be experienced live and it is fortunate that so many companies have done it and now there is even a second production. My two most recent world premieres, Shalimar the Clown and JFK are musically and dramatically stunning which gives me hope that they will have legs. The real problem with modern music is that all too often composers seem to be allergic to writing beautiful melodies. People like Jack Perla, David T Little, and Ricky Ian Gordon write beautiful melodies that enhance the drama onstage which is why I love singing their works.
Opera Lively – Your tenor group Forte is described as combining voices from different cultures. Please describe this effort to us, and why you think it is important to engage in this initiative.
Sean Panikkar – I fell into Forte in a very lucky way. Forte is a tenor crossover trio that competed on season 8 of America’s Got Talent. I was not initially part of the group, but after their first round of competition one of the singers was disqualified from the competition due to being on a student visa instead of a work visa. Josh Page, one of the other tenors in the group, went on a mad scramble to find a replacement and stumbled upon me while digging around opera management websites. I had never met either of the other two tenors, but I thought it would be fun to sing on national TV in front of an average of 10-12 million people so I agreed and in a matter of days we were singing together for the very first time. It ended up working and we made it all the way to the finals. We walked off of the Radio City Music Hall stage after being eliminated in the finals and were literally signed in the wings to a recording contract. One day later we started recording our first album on Columbia Records, the largest division of Sony. That album spent months on the Amazon Best Sellers list for all music, reaching as high as number two only behind Lady GaGa. Since then we have toured all over the country and met incredible people including singing for President Obama at The National Tree Lighting. I personally thought it was important to perform with the group because of the wide reach AGT has. So many of the AGT audience thinks that anybody with a vibrato is an opera singer and that isn’t their fault. The opera community overall has done a terrible job of reaching real people. When Josh found me for the group, his priority was to have a working opera singer in the group because he knew how important that could be for the art form. It really has worked as a number of AGT fans took their first step into an opera house specifically to see me sing in an opera. One of the best experiences was when I was singing The Pearl Fishers with Fort Worth Opera. Darren Keith Woods hired Forte to play the same stage the day after opening night and that led to a lot of people experiencing their first opera and then finishing up their weekend with a Forte performance. That was truly a “crossover” experience.