It’s hard to imagine Sean Panikkar having a better year.
The talented tenor — who headlines two very different shows this weekend at Bass Hall, one with the Fort Worth Opera, the other with the singing trio Forte — feels as if a lifetime of great memories have been jammed into just 12 months.
“It has been a complete whirlwind for me,” Panikkar says during a rehearsal break from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers, which opens the Fort Worth Opera Festival at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. “And it all started the day after the Fort Worth Opera Festival ended last year.”
Panikkar had wowed the crowd with his performance in La Bohème. Then came an out-of-the-blue invitation to join two other tenors in a group called Forte so they could compete on America’s Got Talent.
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“Ever since, it’s been a series of once-in-a-lifetime experiences, back to back to back to back,” Panikkar says. “We went on the show, the top-rated television show of the summer, reaching 10 million to 12 million people every week.
“I was thinking we would last a round, maybe two if we were lucky, but we ended up going all the way to the final. We didn’t win [they finished fourth], but as soon as we walked off the stage, literally in the wings, were executives from Sony-Columbia Records and they signed us on the spot.
“We had one day off and then we were in the studio, recording our debut album on a major record label. Then we were headlining Carnegie Hall in New York City for Kate Winslet’s Golden Hat charity.
“Then we sang at the national tree lighting at the White House, where we met the president, the first lady and their children and got to hang out with Mariah Carey and Aretha Franklin. After the White House, we headlined a show in Las Vegas at the Tropicana over New Year’s.
“Just one amazing thing after another. It happened so fast, we hardly had time to process it.”
Panikkar’s return to Bass Hall in The Pearl Fishers, in which he plays the role of Nadir, was scheduled more than a year ago. But a 7:30 p.m. Sunday concert date for Forte — the trio of Panikkar, Josh Page and Fernando Varela — was added in the wake of the group’s success.
Panikkar feels it’s worth noting that what Forte does isn’t opera. “It’s classical singing,” he clarifies. “We’re singing more popular songs classically, in an operatic style.”
It’s a hybrid subgenre, whose stars include the likes of Josh Groban, Il Divo and Andrea Bocelli, sometimes referred to as “popera.”
Songs on Forte’s self-titled album, for example, include Unchained Melody (by the Righteous Brothers), My Heart Will Go On (Celine Dion) and The Prayer (Celine Dion and Andrea Bocelli).
“The thing I love about Forte is that it is so different from what I do as an opera singer,” Panikkar says. “It’s a different audience too, so it’s fun to do both in such a quick turnaround.
“It definitely keeps me on my toes.”
The tenor is a big fan of The Pearl Fishers, a French opera first performed in 1863.
Set along the sea of ancient tropical Ceylon, the opera puts vows of eternal friendship to the test. Two fishermen are plunged into a forbidden love triangle when a mysterious woman from their past returns and ignites a jealous rivalry.
“Bizet was in his early 20s when he wrote it, just starting out, but you could see his brilliance already,” Panikkar says. “It’s not Carmen, his masterpiece, and it hasn’t stayed in the standard operatic repertoire the way Carmen has. But every single piece in The Pearl Fishers is gorgeous, gorgeous music.
“The baritone-tenor duet in Act 1 is the most famous piece in the show, but you can leave humming five or six different pieces, because Bizet was a master at writing beautiful melodies.”
On Sunday, in addition to performing all of the songs from the group’s album, Forte will mix in a few personal favorites and some solo pieces to allow the audience to get to know the singers as individuals.
Opera lovers and Forte fans might be surprised to learn what Panikkar tends to listen to in his free time.
“Oddly enough, I almost never listen to music,” he says. “When I’m driving around or at the gym, I’m usually listening to sports radio. I download podcasts of sports-talk people like Tony Kornheiser, Dan Patrick and Dan Le Batard.”
Panikkar enjoys working with the Fort Worth Opera because he has special ties to the city, he says.
His wife’s grandparents, Virgil and June Strange, live here.
“Also, the general director of the Fort Worth Opera, Darren Keith Woods, is the one who discovered me when I was an undergraduate,” Panikkar says. “Without Darren, I wouldn’t be a singer at all. So even though this is only my second time singing at the Fort Worth Opera, it feels like family.”