Sean  Panikkar, a gifted tenor with Lankan roots, describes his experience in the new opera based on the last 24 hours of John F. Kennedy’s life  JFK is in the bathtub, when he calls out to Jackie. He is in desperate pain, his back ablaze with the agony of a degenerative bone disease. Jackie gives [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Hitting a personal note in ‘JFK’


Sean  Panikkar, a gifted tenor with Lankan roots, describes his experience in the new opera based on the last 24 hours of John F. Kennedy’s life 

Matthew Worth as JFK and Sean Panikkar as Henry Rathbone. Photos by Karen Almond courtesy of Fort Worth Opera

JFK is in the bathtub, when he calls out to Jackie. He is in desperate pain, his back ablaze with the agony of a degenerative bone disease. Jackie gives him his shot of morphine, and then casually injects herself. She too is in pain, but of a different kind. This is her first public outing since she lost her infant son, just two days after he was born. Jackie struggles too with the knowledge that the man beside her has been unfaithful more than once. But for both husband and wife, morphine offers a blessed reprieve. As they drift off into hallucinations, outside their hotel room, Fort Worth, Texas is aflutter with the news of the Presidential visit. So begin the last 24 hours before an assassin’s bullet finds its target.

It’s the kind of dramatic opening scene that gets talked about – a lot. But this is not the last of the intimacies that ‘JFK’, the production whose world premiere on April 23  kicked off Fort Worth Opera’s 70th-anniversary season, has to offer. Staged at Bass Hall, a few blocks away from the city’s memorial to the murdered president, and just opposite to the hotel in which he spent his last night, it attempts to get under the skin of one of America’s most beloved figures. And there, in the cast, is someone Sri Lankan audiences will recognize.

A gifted tenor, Sean Panikkar plays Henry Rathbone in ‘JFK’. Born to a father of mixed Sinhalese and Indian heritage and to a Sri Lankan Tamil mother, Panikkar’s choice of career has made him something of an oddity in a family otherwise thick with doctors and engineers. While Panikkar’s brother Rajiv was born here, in Matara, Panikkar who came along six years later grew up in Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. Still, Sri Lankan fans have followed his career closely, as it has gone from strength to strength.

Now, he tells the Sunday Times in an email interview that Henry, an actual historical figure who witnessed the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, is here reincarnated as a secret service agent in the President’s detail. He is also simultaneously cast in the role of one of the fates of Greek mythology – Lacheis who measures and dictates the length of the thread. His wife Clara is both a hotel maid and Clotho, the spinner of the thread of life, and the third fate, Atropos, the cutter, is the unseen assassin who is awaiting JFK in Dallas. “Ultimately our presence in the opera is that of a Greek chorus that not only comments on the events, but also steers the President to his death,” explains Panikkar.

Panikkar comes to this role bearing a resume laden with honours and a performing schedule so hectic that it boggles the mind. He is recognizable to fans outside the opera thanks to his group Forte, which was formed to compete on the show America’s Got Talent. They recently finished their second album – ‘The Future Classics,’offers a classical interpretation of modern popular songs. But it is Panikkar’s career in the opera that continues to define him.

Recent highlights alone include a new production of Nabucco at Washington National Opera, La bohème staged by Francesca Zambello at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the title role of Béatrice et Bénèdict with Opera Boston, The Magic Flute at Pittsburgh Opera, as well as what has become recognized as a signature role, Nadir in Les pêcheurs de perles (The Pearl Fishers), for Fort Worth Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, and Opera Colorado. He opened his 2015 – 2016 season at Michigan Opera Theatre as Rodolfo in La bohème and continues the season in a return engagement with the Washington National Opera as The Leader in Lost in the Stars.

Talise Trevigne as Clara Harris and Sean Panikkar, standing second from left

“‘JFK’ is the second of five world premieres that I currently have on my schedule,” Panikkar says, “In fact, I am heading to Saint Louis, Missouri next to sing the title role in a new work, ‘Shalimar the Clown,’ based on the Salman Rushdie novel of the same title.”

Meanwhile, ‘’JFK’ has been received with very positive reviews. Panikkar says it has been a privilege to work with Thaddeus Strassberger (director), Steven Osgood (conductor), David T. Little (composer), and Royce Vavrek (librettist). “Besides the artistic team, the cast is world class and some of the nicest people in this business. This show with a different cast might not have been nearly as powerful as it is,” he says, but it is director Thaddeus Strassberger’s attention to detail that really has everyone floored.

Strassberger who took a hand in set design, combed over every detail in this production to a degree that Panikkar says even he is often taken aback by. “The hotel suite was meticulously recreated into a revolving set and even the furniture was built by the same company that built the furniture that was in the original Hotel Texas suite,” he reveals. On the walls hang replicas of the artwork that was loaned to the hotel on that day, since the President and First Lady would not have the time to visit local museums.

“The props are also detailed beyond anything the audience can imagine. At one point Jackie’s assistant comes into the room with a clipboard and on that clipboard is the actual itinerary that the First Lady had for the day. Nobody in the audience has any idea. Thaddeus could have just used a blank piece of paper, but his attention to every little detail has really served the opera well,” says Panikkar.

But the heart of this production is a love story, one that takes the relationship between JFK and Jackie for its focus. The opera presents both their personal angst and the effort they put into upholding their public personas. “Jackie was mourning the loss of her baby. JFK had a big job to do despite the fact that he could hardly stand up at times,” says Panikkar. “The last 24 hours may or may not have been filled with treasurable moments, but they were the last for Jackie to hold onto, and we walk that journey with her.”

Panikkar found himself confronting his own mortality as he prepared for the role. In one particularly poignant aria, he sings: ‘If you knew, it was today/ You would measure every minute/ If you knew, it was today/ It would be too much/ A day like any day/ This riddle without reason/ A day like any day/ The largest wound.’

The opera itself can and does move him to tears. “The last 24 hours before heading to Dallas were the last 24 hours Jackie had with JFK. None of us ever know how much time we have left on this earth and I try to keep that in the back of my mind now.” The production carries the audience along with it until the split second before the assassination that America remembers with such grief. For his part, Panikkar understands the impact of this story, so many years after the event that inspired it. “It is such a personal story for Americans, whether they lived through it, or studied the history and mythology of this legendary couple,” says Panikkar.“You can’t leave the theatre without being moved.”

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