From NFL to rising opera star
Posted on 20 December 2010
This is an amazing story about a young man who played NFL but dreamed of being an opera singer - and describes how Dame Kiri is helping young singers all over the world to achieve their dreams. It appeared earlier this month in the Ethiopian Review and is reprinted here with the editor’s permission.
(Exciting young lyric tenor Ta’u Pupu’a was born on the South Pacific's Polynesian island of Tonga. At an early age he came with his family to Salt Lake City, Utah. Growing up, his two passions were football and music. He attended Weber State University on a football scholarship while pursuing a Bachelor of Music degree, during which time he was "discovered" by Bill Belichick and drafted to the N.F.L. to the Cleveland Browns and on to the Baltimore Ravens. After sustaining an injury playing for the N.F.L., he changed career direction to follow his first passion – opera.)
Even when Ta’u Pupu’a spent almost every waking hour lifting weights, studying game film and playing his way into the National Football League, the music was there. It had soared into his heart when he was a boy, cascading down from his brother’s bedroom, and never left. So once football decided it was done with him, spitting him out in the cruel and unforgiving way it often does, Pupu’a turned back to the music.
Embraced it, and chased it.
Now, after all these years, the music is just about the only thing that concerns him. The bel canto is his Belichick, the aria his snap count. Now, the one-time defensive lineman who defied astounding odds to reach the NFL from a small Utah college is a heralded opera tenor on the verge of an equally improbable and wondrous international career — touched by some of the biggest names in the business — and he does not have much use for shoulder pads anymore.
“I just want to sing,” he says. “That will make me happy.”
Walking confidently through the halls of the legendary Juilliard School on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Pupu’a betrays no hint of the emptiness that led him back to the music. Dressed all in black with smooth black hair and a carefully trimmed goatee, he smiles warmly at the colleagues he passes and hugs a good friend while waiting for the elevator.
Looks as if he could still play ball, too.
Pupu’a stands 6-foot-5, with the broad shoulders and purposeful carriage of a serious athlete, though he figures he weighs some 50 pounds less than the 290 he did when he played football.
A native of the island of Tonga whose family moved to Salt Lake City when he was a toddler, Pupu’a was an athletic standout at Highland High School and Weber State University. He played so well for the Wildcats during a losing season as a senior — and showed such amazing speed for his size in postseason workouts — that the Cleveland Browns made him a fifth-round pick in the 1995 NFL Draft.
Even by then, though, his rich voice was attracting attention.
Pupu’a had grown to love opera music while reluctantly listening to his brother play it at home, and impressed those at Weber State for whom he had performed at a banquet. When he sat on the bleachers at Wildcat Stadium for an interview shortly after being drafted, he already was planning to play five or six years in the NFL, then quit and pursue a singing career.
“Since Pavarotti is getting ready to retire,” he said at the time, “they’re going to need somebody for the spotlight.”
Finally, after an arduous and amazing journey he could never have imagined, the spotlight has found him.
“He’s a major, major, major, major vocal talent,” said Stephen Wadsworth, the renowned director who acts as a mentor to Pupu’a at Juilliard. “He has a world-class voice … and he’s a very engaging and dear person on-stage and off. The potential there is very, very exciting.”
Pupu’a never really works out anymore, he says, except to unconsciously hoist himself higher and higher on his toes as he reaches the highest notes during a rehearsal in a bare room seemingly built for dance — full-length mirrors on one side, with ballet bars mounted on the other stark white walls.
“Football and singing are the same,” he says later. “The preparation of learning the role versus learning a play, the physical aspect of it. … They go hand-in-hand.”
Maybe that’s part of the reason it was so hard to accept the end of his football career.
Pupu’a was depressed for months after that happened — he accepted an injury settlement after two seasons with the Browns and Baltimore Ravens, in which he did not play in a regular-season game — and moved back to Utah uncertain of his future. Having grown up poor as the youngest of nine children, he felt as if he had tasted “the greatness of the world,” yet had it yanked away. He had played football almost all his life, and did not know what to do without it.
He couldn’t even stand to watch games on television.
But Pupu’a had joined the chorus of the Utah Opera and found a place in other occasional concerts, and kept hearing people tell him he should do something more with his beautiful voice.
Finally, he remembered his plan. He took a chance, and chased his dream.
When Pupu’a moved to New York City in 1999, he had little aside from his dream.
No voice teacher, no school, no language skills. Didn’t really read music. He was majoring in music at Weber State, but never graduated.
“Nobody wanted to take me, because I was so green,” he recalled.
He stayed with an old college friend and took a job as a host at O’Neals’, a now-defunct restaurant across the street from Lincoln Center that afforded him both a view of The Metropolitan Opera every time he came and went and the chance to meet the industry giants who came to eat after the performances.
“I would just watch them,” Pupu’a said, “and go, ‘Hmmm. I wonder what makes them tick? I want to tick that way.’ ”
Eventually, he found an elderly voice teacher who coached him for several years, helping him learn the basics of his craft and work his way into the smaller opera groups around the city. He found his own apartment.
And then, he found his big break.
Having seen the famous soprano Kiri Te Kanawa perform at The Met, Pupu’a decided he needed to meet her. So he attended a book signing, waited in line nearly an hour, and found himself face-to-face with one of the greatest opera singers of all time — a fellow Polynesian, no less. Te Kanawa is half-Maori, a native of New Zealand.
During their brief conversation, as Pupu’a recounts it, Te Kanawa commiserated with him about the difficulty of forging a career on the opera stage.
Then, “she looked at me and said, ‘I want to help you,’” Pupu’a recalled. “‘How can I help you?’ ”
The doors were opened.
In the months that followed, things happened quickly for Pupu’a, though even he acknowledges that he did not fully appreciate the beneficence at the time. He met Wadsworth, the director of opera studies at Juilliard, and through Te Kanawa, who runs a foundation to assist aspiring singers, he met Brian Zeger, the artistic director of the department of vocal arts there.
Before long, Pupu’a was auditioning for Zeger — five arias and a monologue, with only a month to prepare and the chance at a rare scholarship to the prestigious school.
“I was just praying that I got in,” Pupu’a said.
One of just a dozen performers accepted, Pupu’a entered the school in 2008 on a two-year program in opera studies that he later extended to three years. “It’s not even really a degree track, it’s a pre-professional track,” said Janet Kessin, a spokeswoman for Juilliard. “It’s the most advanced program we have,” designed to hone performers for serious careers.
Back home, the family — his father and four siblings still live in the Salt Lake City area — was astounded.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is the make-or-break moment for him,’ ” said Tipi Pupu’a, whose interest in opera music rubbed off on his younger brother. “If he gets into the school, he’s going to be exposed to the best teachers and coaches and all of that kind of stuff. … When it actually happened, I thought the door has been opened, and it’s up to him now to just make the most of it.”
That’s just what he did.
While Pupu’a already had performed parts of La Boheme, Rigoletto, Madame Butterfly and Tosca with various local and regional companies, he soon was playing the Kennedy Center in Washington, opposite Tyne Daly in Terrence McNally’s Master Class, and working again with the Alexandria Symphony Orchestra in nearby Virginia.
He also attended an intense month-long language course in Tuscany to improve his Italian and won a spot performing with Te Kawana on what he called a “magical night” as part of the annual Solti / Te Kanawa Accademia di Bel Canto.
Then came Tanglewood.
At first, Pupu’a didn’t want to go.
Even though Wadsworth had recommended he audition for the role as Bacchus in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos at the Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts last summer, Pupu’a feared he would not be able to handle such a demanding role — and in front of the celebrated conductor and director James Levine, the longtime musical director at The Met and Boston Symphony Orchestra.
So he faked a toothache and skipped the audition.
“I was really nervous about it,” Pupu’a says, shaking his head. “I don’t know …”
Fortunately for him, the Tanglewood organizers called back two months later to ask if he was still interested. They arranged for him to audition for Levine a week later — not much time to learn the material. But this time, Pupu’a went, and Levine hired him on the spot, asking only that Pupu’a return in three weeks with a better handle on the role.
He did, meeting Levine at hallowed Carnegie Hall.
“I walked on that stage,” Pupu’a recalled, “and I looked out at Carnegie Hall and I thought to myself, ‘All of my opera heroes have graced this stage, and now I’m on this stage.’ So I stood there and I sang for Levine. And he said, ‘Great. I’m excited to work with you.’ ”
Levine ultimately had to pull out of the performances because of back surgery, but that did not affect the performances — or the reviews.
Pupu’a “seems to have limitless power, so far not entirely tamed,” critic James R. Oestreich wrote in The New York Times. “But the voice has real gold in its best moments.” In The Boston Globe, reviewer David Perkins called Pupu’a a “tall and handsome Bacchus” who “grew in vocal strength and by the end of the love duet was making a truly heroic sound.”
Looking back, Pupu’a almost can’t believe it.
What would have happened if he had never been hurt playing football? If he had never taken a chance and moved to New York? If he had never sought out Te Kawana or been accepted into Juilliard or auditioned for Levine?
“I don’t know,” he says. “I would have gone down that other path. But I believe that everybody is blessed with talent, and it’s up to you to find that talent. I was fortunate enough to have two, and to realize what those two were.”
Since Tanglewood, a variety of offers have rolled in.
Puccini in New Zealand?
Verdi in Albany?
Beethoven in Shanghai?
“Everybody in the business knows the guy,” Wadsworth said, noting his “complete openness” and ever-improving nuance and repertoire on stage.
Indeed, the future seems to be rising to meet Pupu’a, who still occasionally mixes up “halftime” and “intermission” and drops bits of song into conversation. What he knows for sure is that he graduates the Juilliard program in May, after performing in The Metropolitan Opera Guild’s cruise to Spain and Morocco next month.
It’s anybody’s guess.
But a tremendous career almost certainly awaits, and Pupu’a knows what lies in his heart.
“My dream is, I just want to sing,” he says. “I want to sing with an incredible technique, with an incredible voice. I just want to be an incredible singer … a singer that has everything. It doesn’t have to be at the Met. It could be at a small opera company. The Met is a bonus, of course. But a lot of singers will put all their eggs in one basket and just say The Met. And if they don’t get The Met, they’re really disappointed. I just want to sing, and that will make me happy. “I guess that’s the reason a lot of things are happening in my life,” he added, “because I just want to sing.”
On the verge of stardom Ta’u Pupu’a always knew he wanted to build a career as a singer, even when the Highland High School graduate was leaving Weber State University to play in the National Football League. Now, years after a foot injury ended his football career, the former defensive lineman is fulfilling his dream by blossoming as a tenor with a “world-class voice” who’s poised to become one of the stars of the international opera scene.