NBC’s America’s Got Talent hasn’t finished its quarterfinals yet, but awaiting the remaining semifinalists is Forte, a tenor trio with a typical story for the show. And that, of course, means it’s not typical at all, especially since it involves church liturgy on national TV.
Josh Page, Hana Ryu, and Fernando Varela didn’t meet each other in person until the day before their first audition. And before their first on-stage performance together, skeptical judge Howard Stern called them “schlubs.”
But when Page began to sing, the judges looked up in surprise. When Varela joined in, their mouths dropped open. And when Ryu made it a trio, their contorted faces showed both incredulty and unabashed appreciation. Audience members jumped to their feet. Some even had tears in their eyes—a remarkable response for a crowd most often attracted to celebrity, cheap laughs, and flashy acrobatics set to hip-hop beats.
Forte sang Andrew Lloyd Webber’s arrangement of “Pie Jesu,” derived from the Catholic liturgy. In English, the song’s Latin lyrics say: “Pious Lord Jesus, give them rest. Pious Lord Jesus give them everlasting rest. Pious Jesus, who takes away the sins of the world, give them rest. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, give them everlasting rest.”
By singing a prayer on national television, the operatic trio won a trip to Las Vegas. “What I love is that we can sing songs about God in the classical world without getting blasted for it,” said tenor and Forte member Sean Panikkar. “If a true pop singer tried to sing about God they would be off the radio.”
Panikkar joined the group after the show’s producers discovered Ryu, of South Korea, was in the United States on a student visa, making him ineligible to compete. The original trio met online after Page, a singer and photographer raised on a New York alpaca farm, contacted Varela, a Puerto-Rican husband, father, and music director of Florida’s St. Paul’s National Catholic Church. Page thought a tenor group might do well on the show, and the pair had connections through producer David Foster. To bolster their group, they found classically trained opera singer Ryu, with whom they made their audition video. The clip has since gone viral.
When Ryu had to drop out after the group’s initial audition, Page and Varela turned to Panikkar, a professional opera singer, to continue in the competition. Panikkar was spending the summer in Michigan with his two children and his wife, with whom he leads a biblical worldview class for youth at Fellowship Baptist Church in Saline, Mich.
Today, the trio awaits the show’s semi-finals after advancing with performances of Andrea Bocelli’s “The Prayer” and West Side Story’s “Somewhere.” The two-week semifinal begins Aug. 27, and the grand prize is $1 million.
But if Forte wins, it probably wouldn’t end up on the Las Vegas strip with its own show, as NBC has offered to past season winners. Panikkar, for example, has a “real job, singing opera unamplified.” He has bookings for international performances into 2015. But he wants to use the group’s new-found platform to point people to “real opera” and to “give God the glory.” Varela wants to minister to as many people as he can: “I was blessed with this talent, and I am humbled at how healing music can be for people.”