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August 30, 2014

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Q+A: ‘America’s Got Talent’ finalist Forte brings popera to the forefront at Tropicana

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NBC

“America’s Got Talent” host Nick Cannon with tenor trio Forte — Fernando Varela, Josh Page and Sean Panikkar.

Forte

Fernando Varela, Sean Panikkar and Josh Page are tenor trio Forte of “America’s Got Talent.” Launch slideshow »

Forte Unchained Melody

Part pop, part opera, tenor trio and “America’s Got Talent” Season 8 finalist Forte headlines the Tropicana Theater for three nights of performances Saturday through Monday to ring in the New Year.

I chatted with members Josh Page and Sean Panikkar about the group’s atypical roots, the challenges of their genre of popera, and what’s in store for their Las Vegas debut.

The group has an interesting back story — you haven’t known one another for very long. Tell me about how Forte came together.

Josh Page: Sean came in one round into the show, so the initial formation of the group was just me and [Fernando Varela], a couple guys meeting on the Internet and creating a group just for the sake of trying it on the show and not expecting anything to come from it, really. The first time we performed on the show was our first time performing for an audience. We had only met two days before. The whole process of the show was us getting to know each other and forming in front of the nation.

You met through the Internet because of a viral video, correct?

J.P.: Yeah. I was at a Josh Groban concert, and I ended up getting pulled onstage — out of 20,000 people, I got my seat number called — and we ended up performing a duet. It got millions of hits, and Fernando had seen it. We started talking through YouTube and the Internet, and I had seen his performances and thought they were incredible. So I thought, why not try to put together a new kind of tenor group for “AGT” and just see what happens?

Because you were just getting to know one another over the course of the show, how did that process and your different backgrounds as singers affect the chemistry of the group?

Sean Panikkar: I think what really makes our group work is that the three of us are such unique voices. We’re all from different musical backgrounds. What we’re doing is more or less a classical spin on pop music — singing it in a classical style. But we all come at it from a different approach and have very distinct individual voices that when they all come together for harmony, it really makes something magical.

Besides the music side of things, our personalities are also very different. That was the hard thing with “AGT” because we were thrust into this high-pressure environment with guys we’d never done anything with. We didn’t know how to communicate with each other; we didn’t know how each person would respond to criticisms.

It was really an interesting growing process for us. But because we were in this high-pressure environment together, it brought us naturally closer together. We went from complete strangers to friends and from soloists to a group all in the course of a summer, and it ended up working out pretty well for us.

What first drew each of you to this performance style?

J.P.: When I was young, I was obsessed with incredible, powerful singers in general. As I was growing up and training my voice, I just loved training classically. It just felt like something that you never say, “Oh, I’m done learning”; it’s something you’re always going to be on the learning curve with. I thought of it as The Olympics of using your voice. It made me really want to focus on that kind of training throughout my life, even while I’m doing stuff with my rock band and pop songs.

S.P.: I had totally ulterior motives. I had no desire to be a professional musician. When I was applying to college, I really wanted to be an engineer, which is a really competitive process, so I was looking for a way to pad my resume. I had been singing and playing instruments from the time I was little, so I started taking voices lessons just to try to win a local competition that I thought would look good on my resume and set me apart from other applicants.

I ended up getting all the way to the state level and got into the University of Michigan’s engineering program. My voice teacher encouraged me to send in an audition tape to apply to be a dual major, and I got it. At this point, I’d still never even seen an opera. I went to their choir and met a cute girl who was the pianist, and I needed a pianist for my voice lessons, so I thought what better way to hang out with a cute girl than to have her play my lessons? Because she’s in my voice lessons, I started practicing a little harder, and I got really good at it.

Now we’re married — going on nine years. It got to the point where doing anything in music would’ve been preferable to even a great job in engineering. As soon as I heard my first recording of [opera singer] Jon Vickers singing, I was hooked. I just knew that that was what I wanted to do. I never looked back.

Click to enlarge photo

Fernando Varela, Sean Panikkar and Josh Page are tenor trio Forte of “America’s Got Talent.”

Click to enlarge photo

Fernando Varela, Sean Panikkar and Josh Page are tenor trio Forte of “America’s Got Talent.”

Because opera and classical singing are niche genres today, what are the challenges for you of performing that and selling it to a broader pop audience?

J.P.: I think a lot of it really goes into song choice and being able to find these familiar themes but imagine a way of creating them where they fit in our world vocally, but they also still inspire that magic from people. So being very smart about the song choice helps a lot. We did the song “Something” by The Beatles on our CD that we just released. It ended up being, I think, our favorite to work on because nobody had ever done it in that kind of world before. We had the chance to create something new off a loved theme. I love that about our style — being able to bring those themes into this world. It’s pretty magical, it’s very Disney and orchestral and beautiful.

S.P.: When Josh approached me about joining the group. I was a bit hesitant because it’s very different from what I do normally. Opera, I’m singing unamplified over an orchestra. This is with a mic over a backing track. What really made me decide to give it a shot is that opera suffers from a lot of misperceptions. There’s the idea that it’s only for rich people or that you’re not going to understand anything that’s happening. In the 1800s and early 1900s, opera was the pop music of its time. But it suffered a huge marketing and publicity problem.

To get on a platform like “AGT” in front of 10 million people, I thought that would be a way to serve as kind of a bridge to the classical opera world. And I found that’s actually been happening. A lot of fans of Forte who had never been to an opera or symphony performance are coming to see us and saying they’re checking out those genres now in their hometown theaters because they saw us on the show. That’s one of the great things about being on a show like “AGT.”

What can audiences expect from your upcoming shows at the Tropicana? They’ll be much more extensive than what people have seen on “AGT.”

J.P.: I think people can expect a real introduction to each person and seeing how that works together. We didn’t have enough time to show ourselves individually on “AGT.” They got to see how we were meeting and how we were meshing, but we were just getting to know each other along with them.

So now they get to continue the journey with us. They get to keep seeing our first experiences, and I think that that makes them really invested in us to see what happens. It’s still the same energy.

S.P.: It’s going to be a really fun show. Like Josh said, we’re showcasing our story not just as the group but as individuals. It’s going to be the first time people are going to see who we are on our own musically and our personalities.

We’re of course going to be doing songs from our album, but this allows us to be free from the constraints of just our album, to choose songs that are just fun. Things we wanted to do that we thought the audience would enjoy. It’s going to be an overall fun experience for everybody involved.

How would you sum up each of your styles as individual performers?

J.P.: I’m like the young, Groban-esque rock-pop opera singer, just all different styles. Sean is like the powerhouse, legit, classical finessed style that you just can’t fake. It takes over a decade of constant work to build up to a voice like Sean’s. It’s incredible to see when he put down the microphone, and it sounds louder than if a mic was there. That kind of sums up my opinion on him.

S.P.: I’ll take Fernando. Fernando is a showman. He can take any song throughout history and bring it into his world. He’s just a true entertainer. We had one very short concert recently where we got to watch him break out into his own style, and he had the audience going out of their minds. It was so exciting to watch.

J.P.: I think in opera circles, he’s referred to as a “stage animal.” As soon as you put him in front of an audience, that’s where he thrives.

Forte is at Tropicana Las Vegas from Saturday through Monday. Go to Tropicana's website for showtime and ticket information.

Follow Andrea Domanick on Twitter at @AndreaDomanick and fan her on Facebook at Facebook.com/AndreaDomanick.

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