Originally published in the December 2013 issue of The Villages Magazine
By Michael Fortuna
Three tenors who met on the Internet stepped onto the audition stage of “America’s Got Talent.” Almost a year later, the group known as Forte — Fernando Varela, who has performed in The Villages for many years, along with Josh Page and Sean Panikkar — has released its debut album, performed at Carnegie Hall in November, and preparing for performances at Las Vegas later this month. The group’s first single, “Caruso,” is available via iTunes and Amazon.
Forte, which had met via YouTube clips, made its television debut on the episode that aired June 25. At the time, it was comprised of Page, Varela, and Hana Ryu.
The group was considering two songs for its audition piece — “Pie Jesu” and “Nessun Dorma.”
“We ended up choosing ‘Pie Jesu’ because we thought it had a great arc to the song,” Varela said. “It set up each person really nicely. Going back to that audition, we really didn’t bring any nice clothes. We said, ‘Let’s walk in looking like regular guys. That would be interesting.’ That song started with Josh (and everyone thought) ‘Oh wow, I wasn’t expecting that thing.’ I took the next part, and you had another ‘oh my goodness.’ Then you have an Asian guy and you don’t think he can sing. There’s another wow moment. Then all three come together. The arc was so great.”
After these auditions, Ryu, who is from Seoul, South Korea, had to bow out of the competition, leaving Varela and Page to find someone else. They turned to the Internet once more and found Panikkar.
They didn’t have time to get to know each other or rehearse until they landed in Las Vegas.
“We were whisked right away to sing in front of the producers and rehearse,” Varela said. “That was a very stressful week.
“For me personally, that was the most stressful point. There was a lot of stress and anxiety over the whole thing. Will we all get along? We had some moments when we didn’t agree on stuff and we didn’t know each other. There were a couple of days where we needed a break from each other. We came back the next day fresh. We were learning how to deal with each other.”
For this audition, they chose to sing “The Prayer.”
“At the time we wanted to do something more recognizable,” Varela said. “We wanted to do something that had some English in it. It’s a very popular song in this genre. When we add in a new member into the group, we were worried about having a song that gave him a moment to introduce him. When he took that solo, it was ‘Welcome to the group.’
“It was like starting over. It was another audition for us. (Panikkar) is very professional, a very quick study. That was very helpful.”
When the trio made it through the Vegas auditions and headed to New York and Radio City Music Hall, Forte chose “Somewhere” from “West Side Story.”
“That seemed like the perfect song to do,” Varela said. “It has a beautiful message. It’s from an iconic Broadway show. As a Puerto Rican I grew up watching it and identifying with it.”
For the next round, Forte sang a rendition of the Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody.” After hearing complaints of singing in unison, the group decided to sing more harmony. It also started off the song in Italian, then ended in English.
“That ended up being even bigger moment than the previous week,” Varela said.
When Forte was trying to figure out how to top that performance, the music director for the show suggested Forte sing “My Heart Will Go On” from the movie “Titanic.” At first, the guys were hesitant, but then Varela suggested they sing it in Spanish. They decided to go for it, starting off in Spanish but not give too many clues.
“Most of the audience didn’t know what song it was,” Varela said. “When you got to the chorus, you heard this collective sigh in the audience. ‘Oh! It’s the ‘Titanic’ song!’ It had a humongous ending, and the audience was on its feet. That was the biggest moment we had on the show.”
For the finals held Sept. 17, Forte sang two songs: “The Prayer,” something the group had done previously; and “Caruso.”
“They had edited (our performance of ‘The Prayer’) during Vegas to 40 seconds,” Varela said. “Now we get to do more of the song. We had an orchestra and a choir and a big production. ‘Caruso’ is a very classical-sounding song, very passionate. We hadn’t done anything operatic (in the show). This was a very iconic song. Every tenor has sang it or covered it.”
In the end, out of the final six performers, Forte came in fourth.
How he got here
Varela, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Orlando around the age of 8, didn’t take up singing until he was 17, and originally it wasn’t because he loved music.
“I was chasing after a girl who was an opera singer,” he said.
One of the first public places he sang at was in The Villages, singing mostly in choruses.
“There are some people in The Villages who remember that 17-year-old kid,” Varela said. “I had just started and knew nothing.”
Hoping to continue his musical education, Varela, who was 18 at the time, went to the University of Central Florida to audition for its music program, but he got an unexpected response.
“They laughed at me,” Varela said. “They told me I didn’t have what it took to be a singer. There was a spark that made me want to do it for real.”
Varela felt embarrassed for a couple of weeks after the audition, but said he eventually brushed that aside.
“I’m not going to let this dictate my future,” Varela said. “I decided to dive in and study harder. I sang anywhere they’d let me to get more experience. I was practicing like it was a full-time job.”
During a span of seven years, Varela was a resident artist at the Central Florida Lyric Opera where he studied voice with Maestro Bill Doherty. He also studied with various voice teachers around the world, including in New York and Italy.
A couple of years ago, Varela caught the attention of producer and songwriter extraordinaire David Foster, who has worked with such artists as Natalie Cole, Chicago, Andrea Bocelli, Josh Groban, Celine Dion and Michael Buble, among others.
This whole experience with Forte on “America’s Got Talent” has given Varela more validation.
“I’ve been plugging away for the last 16 years to get a break,” Varela said. “The last thing that was missing was major TV exposure like this. If you work hard enough and don’t give up, and you’re focused on something day after day and love what you do, eventually you’re going to get that break. I’m glad happened when it did. I’m so grateful for the opportunity. I didn’t take it for granted. I was very prepared. I soaked it in. I sat in theater for hours and many days thinking, ‘I’m at Radio City Music Hall getting ready to perform for millions of people on TV.’ It’s just a very satisfying experience.”