When NBC’s America’s Got Talent kicks off its season finale tonight, tenor trio Forte will compete for the $1 million prize. But it’s not just their powerful voices that have made them stand out. Viewers are drawn to their story and their faith.
The group first made waves by shocking the judges with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s arrangement of “Pie Jesu,” derived from the Catholic liturgy. The audition video went viral, both because of the music and because of the group’s story—none of the trio members had met before the competition.
Two of the group’s members—Fernando Varela and Sean Panikkar—have been vocal about how their faith has been a large part of what they’ve done as they’ve sailed through to the competition’s finals. Varela, a “proud Puerto Rican,” husband, father, and music director of Florida’s St. Paul’s National Catholic Church, wants to be an example to his fellow Latinos. Told he wasn’t good enough in college, he persevered in a 17-year career as a church music leader. He wants to inspire others to persevere as well, believing all things are possible with God: “Even as a struggling musician, He has always provided for me and my family, making sure all of our needs were met.”
Panikkar, who joined the trio after one of the original members had to drop out, wants to “give God the glory” and bring exposure to classical singing. He could only join Forte because he had the summer off from his “real job,” singing opera unamplified. While spending time with his wife and two children, he also led a biblical worldview class for youth at Fellowship Baptist Church in Saline, Mich.
But Forte’s extended stay on the show forced him to choose between the group and his scheduled September role singing Giuseppe Verdi’s Macbeth in Dresden, Germany: “It was a huge decision, but I decided to withdraw from my performances in Dresden because I really feel like I am in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
Tonight’s performances by the final six acts will feature tough competition, including an Iraqi war veteran-turned-singer and a 17-year-old magician. But with the reception Forte has had—from audiences and record companies—it’s unlikely tonight’s show will be its last. “Our hope is to record an album and tour all while still maintaining our respective solo careers,” Panikkar said. “We all feel that we are on a special journey together and we are excited to see where it takes us.”
It’s easy to see what’s special about that journey when the men come together in perfect harmony. “It isn't just musical harmony either,” Panikkar said. “What we are doing has transcended notes on a page. … What's really incredible is to look back and see how God's hand was guiding all of this.”