A father and daughter from Saline, Sean and Maria Panikkar, are performing in the Michigan Opera Theatre production of “The Summer King” May 12-20 at the Detroit Opera House.
Sean Panikkar plays a leading role as Wendell Smith in the opera about Negro League baseball player Josh Gibson. Maria Panikkar performs in the opera as part of the Michigan Opera Theatre Children’s Chorus. Panikkar originated the role in the first production of the opera in 2017 with the Pittsburgh Opera. MOT will be only the second company to produce “The Summer King.”
Those who don’t follow opera closely may know Sean Panikkar from his experience singing on America’s Got Talent with the trio of tenors known as Forte. The group put out their first album shortly after he appeared on the show in 2012 and released a second album in 2017.
Sean’s wife, Jane (Arvidson) Panikkar, is not involved directly with the “Summer King” production but is also a part of MOT as the Michigan Opera Theatre Children’s Preparatory Chorus conductor.
Music is what brought the family together in the first place.
“I met my wife at the University of Michigan where I was a double major in engineering and music, and as a freshman, she was my accompanist for voice lessons,” Sean Panikkar said. “I went with the music, because I didn't want to make fool of myself in front of her. We started dating my sophomore year.”
After training for two years in San Francisco as part of a fellowship, he joined the San Francisco Opera, the second largest opera company in the U.S. While living on the west coast, Sean and Jane got married. But when their first child, Maria, was about to be born they decided it was important to be closer to family and moved back to Saline in 2008.
Because he travels so frequently as part of his job, Sean Panikkar and his wife home school both Maria and her younger brother, 6-year-old Mark, so the children can go on the road with their father.
“I almost never get to work at home, so this job with Michigan Opera Theatre is a luxury,” Panikkar said. “I get to sleep in my own bed and commute to work like a normal person.”
Panikkar said he and his wife have always been deeply involved in music but they never pushed it on their children. Nevertheless, both kids naturally developed an interest in it.
At age 3, Maria was enchanted by a production of “The Music Man" and knew the words to all the songs.
“She got the theater bug immediately,” her father said.
At age 5, she was in her first production, earning a non-speaking extra-type role in a production of “Macbeth”, and later had a singing role in "The Odyssey".
“I was playing Macduff, and Macbeth kills Macduff’s children and wife,” Panikkar said. “Maria played one of the children and she was alive in the first act, and dead in the second, and I would hold her and sing an aria.”
Panikkar describes working in productions with his daughter as “really wonderful.”
“She’s been a pro on any job, just a model child,” he said. “Even when she’s tired, she behaves well. She has her little child moments in private.”
Panikkar said that “The Summer King” has something for everyone, including children. It does not have a traditional operatic musical score but instead includes many other musical genres and was composed by a jazz drummer.
“It has a variety of musical styles and is accessible to both children and adults. My kids loved every minute of it,” he said. “It has fun music, and a fun story, but it's a sad story as well. “
Ticket prices range from $30 to $155. For more information or to buy tickets, visit www.MichiganOpera.org or call (313) 237-7464.