Ten Questions with Sean Panikkar

Sean Panikkar
, tenor
Don José in Carmen

1.  Where were you born / raised? 

I was born and raised in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania, but I currently reside right outside of Ann Arbor in Saline, Michigan. 

2.  If you weren’t a singer, what profession would you be in?

I was a double major in civil engineering and music as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. My goal from a very early age was to have my own construction company, so my plan was to do an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and then a master’s in architecture. All of that went out the window when I started to get recognized for my musical ability. I stayed at Michigan and completed my Master’s degree in vocal performance before getting into the Merola Program and the Adler Fellowship at San Francisco Opera. Since that time, I haven’t had the opportunity to second-guess anything. I made my Metropolitan Opera debut and my European debut at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence as soon as I finished in San Francisco.  I have been steadily working since.

3.  The first opera I was ever in was…

La Bohème. I was in the chorus of La Bohème with Michigan Opera Theater in Detroit. I knew next-to-nothing about opera, and the chorus only sings in act 2 and the very beginning of act 3, so I assumed there were only three acts in the show. At the final dress rehearsal, I went into the auditorium to finally discover once and for all how the opera ended. Act 3 finished and went into Act 4.  I was moved to tears when Mimì died and I was hooked on opera.
This is one of the reasons I encourage new operagoers to just experience the show in the moment. So often people think they need to study the show and read the synopsis. You wouldn’t read the ending of a movie before seeing it, so why do it for opera? The shows always have supertitles so you’ll be able to follow along, and you’ll have a better experience if you discover everything live.

4.  My favorite opera is…

…whatever opera I’m working on. That sounds like a cop-out, but it is the truth. I sing a lot of new works, some that are gorgeous and some that aren’t so much. The ability to genuinely get excited and love what I’m doing means that I’m always happy regardless of what I’m working on. When I’m working on challenging modern works, I look at it as a test. My goal is to be as accurate as possible and at the end of the rehearsal or the performance there is something tremendously rewarding about accomplishing that task. With classic operas, I get wrapped up in the beauty of the music and I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude just to be singing that piece. 

5.  My favorite food to cook or eat is…

…sweet potatoes. This is a little inside baseball, but whenever I’m working on a show that requires me to be scantily clad, I live on baked sweet potatoes and cottage cheese. It’s something that’s easy to prepare on the road, and I’m someone who can eat the same thing every day for weeks without getting tired of it. When I’m fully clothed or in between jobs, I have a weakness for desserts, particularly cake. 

6.  People would be surprised to know that

…my parents and brother used to accuse me of lip synching at choir concerts. I NEVER sang a note at home. Not in the shower, not “Happy Birthday,” nothing. I was a tremendously shy child and the thought of singing by myself terrified me. I loved choir and I definitely sang in those concerts, but I only started taking voice lessons in order to compete in choral competitions in high school. I was basically looking to pad my résumé for the engineering schools I was applying to. I ended up becoming an All State singer in Pennsylvania and my voice teacher encouraged me to apply to Michigan’s School of Music after I had already been admitted to the engineering program. When I entered Michigan, my parents had only heard me sing once, as a soloist at my high school graduation, which was a requirement of me for being an All State singer. 
My first week of school, I almost dropped music, but on the first day of choir I could not stop staring at a girl. I introduced myself and found out that she was a pianist (actually a trumpet major who was multi-talented and also in a voice and piano studio). I was too shy to ask her out on a date, but I needed a pianist for voice lessons. Having her in the room for my lessons made me try harder. By the end of sophomore year we started dating, and this summer we will celebrate 13 years of marriage.

7. If I could travel anywhere, real or fantasy, I would travel to…

New Zealand. It’s one of the countries that I have never been to and I was blown away by the beauty of the country after I saw the Lord of the Rings movies.

8.  I like to binge-watch…

everything. Singers are often on the road by themselves for a long time, so binge watching is a thing once shows are open and we are resting our voices in between shows.

9.  What four people (living or deceased) would you like to invite for a dinner party?

CS Lewis, Jon Vickers, Franco Corelli, and Leonardo Da Vinci. How’s that for a mixed bag?

10.  Everyone should see Carmen because….

It is one of the finest operas ever written. There is a reason that a handful of operas have stayed in the repertory for over a hundred years (the warhorses), and it isn’t because they are bad. Carmen has it all, a great story, great music, and tremendous drama. Plus, whether you realize it or not, virtually everybody will recognize some of the music. 

Bonus:  One question you wish someone would ask you (and the answer)

I often get asked by younger singers about how I stay connected to my family when I’m on the road so much. Being on the road presents a variety of challenges. Whenever possible I try to travel with my family, but schedules don’t always allow that. We are homeschooling our children, so Maria (9) and Mark (6) have been on the road with me several times individually and together.

A few years back, I made a New Year’s resolution to write a letter to my daughter and wife every day that I was away from home. It is something I have done without fail, and when my son was born, I added him to my daily writing. I write three letters every night and it’s like journaling and therapy in one. They get physical reminders in the mailbox that Dad is thinking of them and they read their letters at breakfast. Email is wonderful, but there is something special about receiving a handwritten letter in the mail.

Technology has also made this job a lot easier than it was years ago. Things like Skype and FaceTime are invaluable to performers who are away for sometimes months at a time. Staying connected takes time and effort, but my family is the greatest joy of my life. Of all the roles I have, the role of a father is my favorite. 

Don’t miss the chance to see Sean in Carmen, Bizet’s breathtaking opera.  Performances are November 3 and 5 in Overture Hall.  Tickets start at $18; visit for more information.

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