Sean Panikkar On His Titular Role In The Dark And Compelling 'Shalimar The Clown'

 In Culture

Sean Panikkar is staring in the role of “Shalimar the Clown” at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis’ debut of Salman Rushdie’s dark and compelling tale of forlorn love, murder and terrorism. Although the perennial themes are all there, it’s a timely and wonderful thing that OTSL and co. are performing this particular opera, given the times we now find ourselves thrown into.

Sean Panikkar is a brilliant tenor, and one of the most fascinating people we’ve had the chance to speak with. Panikkar, whose parents are from Sri Lanka, found himself finally at the University of Michigan. Although he was studying to become an engineer, fate decreed otherwise. While studying music—part of a well-rounded education—he met a woman who accompanied him for voice lessons . In the end, she became his wife, and they have two children. Although Sean’s story is one of song and beauty, his role in “Shalimar the Clown” requires that the “nuances of damage,” as W.H. Auden put it, come to the forefront.


Photo courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis

Photo courtesy of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis


You had worked with OTSL before.  How did they find you for the part of “Shalimar the Clown?”
In 2010, OTSL mentioned it to me. Tim O’Leary and James Robinson had mentioned that they were going to be working on “Shalimar the Clown,” and Jack Perla was on board to write the libretto. I had never read the book … it took a while to read. Rushdie is so descriptive and there are so many secondary characters with really well-developed back stories, and it was a lot to process. When you convert a novel into an opera, you’re obviously going to lose some things. I had no idea what the final product would be, but I thought it looked like an interesting project.  I rarely get to play a villain, and Shalimar is definitely a bad guy …

How so?
He kills people—he’s an assassin. The way the story and the opera are structured is that they start in the present day and then go back in time. Shalimar assassinates the U.S. ambassador to India in the very first scene of the opera. James Robinson likes to say that it’s not a who ‘dunnit’ but a ‘why you dunnit.’

You go back in time and learn how Shalimar the Clown went from an innocent child to getting some radical ideas and becoming a cold-blooded assassin. And this stems from him being in love with a village girl named Boonyi—and they were caught making love.

Are there any similarities that resonate with you between your personal life and Rushdie’s novel?
There is a similarity between my parents’ background to Shalimar and Boonyi in the opera. Shalimar is a Muslim and Boonyi is a Hindu living in a land where people were fighting over race, land and religion. My parents are from Sri Lanka where there has been religious and racial tension for hundreds of years. My mother is a Tamil Hindu and my father is a Sinhalese Buddhist. When they were married, they became outcasts for marrying the wrong race.

When my brother was born, my father fled Sri Lanka as a stowaway to India and then brought them to the United States. I was born in the US. I often wondered why we didn’t go to visit. My father never wanted to go back, but my mother feared for the safety of her children.

I look like a Tamil and when I was little, and even today, there is a group called the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam. They are a separatist group trying to form an independent Tamil state. They are recognized globally as a terrorist organization and they use children and women as soldiers. When I was little, they were kidnapping children to put them into terrorist training.

I was blessed to grow up in the United States and to have all of the incredible opportunities that this country has to offer, but my life could have been extremely different had my father not made the hard choice to risk his life for a chance to make his family’s life better. It’s something that I am much more aware of since I have been working through the character arc of Shalimar. My life could have been fairly similar to this fictional character if not for a few bold choices by my parents.

Shalimar The Clown premieres this Saturday, June 11. For more information, visit Opera Theatre of Saint Louis online.

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