Home / Trending / From the NFL to the opera, how this Tongan immigrant found his true calling

From the NFL to the opera, how this Tongan immigrant found his true calling

SALT LAKE CITY — As the youngest of 9 youngsters in a circle of relatives from humble cases, Ta’u Pupu’a were given a large number of hand-me-downs. So when his older brother Tipi were given a brand new pair of black slacks and a white button-down blouse for becoming a member of the glee membership, Ta’u Pupu’a idea he may do the identical.

“I thought to myself … if you want new clothes, just join the glee club!” Ta’u Pupu’a mentioned. “But of course that didn’t work out because I would get Tipi’s hand-me-downs … but I stuck with (singing).”

He caught with it via highschool, the place a instructor identified his skill and inspired him to take part in a vocal pageant as a soloist. He even caught with it when he went to faculty with a soccer scholarship. He had no plan to at some point turn out to be an opera superstar — however plans alternate.

In 1975, the Pupu’a circle of relatives immigrated to Salt Lake City from Tonga, chasing after the American dream. Part of that intended getting an schooling no longer to be had to them of their fatherland, and Pupu’a knew that soccer was once the manner he may download that schooling. But whilst he was once enjoying, he was once additionally finding out song.

“I heard him singing in one of the practice rooms at Weber … I was walking down the hall and heard him sing and I thought, ‘My, what a wonderful voice’ and (I) knocked on the door,” mentioned Evelyn Harris, Pupu’a’s faculty voice instructor. “We became acquainted and he became my student.”

He was once recognized for taking part in soccer, Harris remembered, “but he also loved to sing.”

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a poses with his faculty voice instructor Evelyn Harris. He at all times makes it some degree to seek advice from together with her whilst he is in Utah and nonetheless asks for her evaluations on his performances.

Drafted to the NFL

Pupu’a studied song at Weber State University, however he by no means graduated.

At 6-foot-Five and weighing 290 kilos, Pupu’a was once ready to run the 40-yard sprint in four.Five seconds and temporarily stuck the eye of any trainer who watched him as a defensive lineman.

“I do have to say now, I was good,” he mentioned.

But he nonetheless wasn’t ready for a telephone name that got here one Sunday morning in 1995.

Pupu’a described the house he grew up in as “humble.” There was once no cable and the circle of relatives handiest had one automobile. He took his oldsters to church — the complete circle of relatives are participants of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — and drove again house, making plans to attend a later carrier. When he arrived again at house, one in all his brothers-in-law was once ready to tell Pupu’a that he have been drafted by means of the NFL.

Pupu’a didn’t consider him to start with, however his brother-in-law confident him that the NFL was once going to name him.

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a at a Cleveland Browns apply. Offseason accidents avoided him from ever enjoying in an legitimate NFL recreation.

About 20 mins later, the telephone rang. Pupu’a spoke back the telephone and realized that trainer Bill Belichick picked him for the Cleveland Browns.

“It was like a dream that this happened to me, and I just didn’t know what to do. I mean I just sat there,” Pupu’a mentioned. “I don’t think I even went to church. I think I just sat there and waited for the time for me to go pick up my parents and bring them home.”

Being drafted into the NFL allowed Pupu’a to have enough money issues he by no means may sooner than. He purchased his oldsters a brand new automobile, put TVs and cable of their area. One of his brothers lived in a two-bedroom condominium with his spouse and 6 children — Pupu’a put them in a five-bedroom house with a large backyard for the children to run round in.

“I was able to do a lot of things, help out my sisters and brothers,” he mentioned. “And now they’re doing great things because I was able to show them a little piece of this American dream that I was given.”

He relished in dwelling the American dream — till he wasn’t.

During a tradition in 1996 — only a few months into his soccer profession, sooner than he even performed in an legitimate recreation — Pupu’a suffered a serious damage that introduced his time with the Cleveland Browns to an finish. He tried to proceed to play and different groups invited him to sign up for their exercises, however persevered to be plagued by means of accidents. Finally, he made up our minds he’d had sufficient.

The $100 invoice

Back house with his oldsters, Pupu’a spent a large number of time excited about what to do subsequent. What may he do to get his American dream again?

“Like the Good Book says, you can’t serve two masters and be great so I had to give one up,” he explained of his decision to leave college for the NFL. “I had (given) up the singing and went into football and played, and got injured and left.”

So naturally, the subsequent transfer for Pupu’a was once to serve the different grasp he had first of all became clear of: making a song. Without discussing it with any of his members of the family, Pupu’a made up our minds to transfer to New York City in 1999.

I’m going to New York, similar to the manner we left Tonga to come to Utah. I’m going into the unknown, for my oldsters and my grandparents.

Ta’u Pupu’a

“It was a big shock,” Pupu’a laughed, remembering making the announcement to his circle of relatives.

“Nobody knew until he made the announcement,” his older brother Tipi Pupu’a mentioned.

His circle of relatives didn’t know what to be expecting, and neither did Ta’u Pupu’a.

“But I thought to myself, you know, we came all the way from the kingdom of Tonga and we settled here in Salt Lake City, and we didn’t know what Salt Lake City had in store for us, you know? We had never experienced cold, we had never experienced snow,” Ta’u Pupu’a mentioned. “So I said, I’m going to New York, just like the way we left Tonga to come to Utah. I’m going into the unknown, for my parents and my grandparents.”

The good-bye to his circle of relatives was once emotional, particularly for his grandmother, who was once in tears as Ta’u Pupu’a kissed her good-bye. She pulled out a $100 invoice to give to him, an enormous amount of cash for her. She advised Ta’u Pupu’a to take it. At first he resisted, telling her that he had sufficient for his wishes, however she insisted. Ta’u Pupu’a recalled her pronouncing, “I know I don’t have much, but I want you to take this, just so you can do something with it.”

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a sits with his circle of relatives after his father’s loss of life.

Ta’u Pupu’a relented however nonetheless felt accountable for taking his grandmother’s cash. He idea most likely he would use it to purchase her a Christmas present, but if Christmastime got here close to, he purchased her a Christmas provide with his personal cash, conserving her $100 invoice.

“Can you believe I still have her hundred dollars tucked away?” he mentioned. “I still have her hundred bucks. I couldn’t spend it. But it has a meaning now, that hundred dollars, it has a meaning.”

A fairy godmother

After 3 months in New York, Ta’u Pupu’a mentioned he fell right into a form of despair. After rising up in Utah, the place he felt folks have been friendlier, New York was once an enormous alternate.

“I didn’t understand New York, everything just moved really fast,” he mentioned. “It seems like everyone has horse blinders on. … I wasn’t used to that kind of pace and that kind of living.”

But Pupu’a knew he couldn’t surrender. So he pressed on. He in spite of everything found a voice instructor and labored together with her for a few years.

“But how do you become an opera singer? That’s the real question,” he mentioned.

Around 2003, after being in New York for a couple of years, a pal knowledgeable him of an audition for a small-scale opera manufacturing, Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” It was once carried out in a church with only a piano for accompaniment. Pupu’a landed the starring function as Rigoletto — it was once his first actual opera. That opera led to some other opera, and to some other, all on the identical small scale — in a church, with a piano. Then, one in all Pupu’a’s performances stuck the eye of a director who labored for the Regina Opera Company.

Although he now had extra constant paintings via the opera corporate, he nonetheless hadn’t moderately completed his American dream. Then in 2008, he met the lady who gave his profession the push it wanted.

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a attends a live performance in Pellicano, Italy, with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (entrance proper) and different pals.

“I was going to the Metropolitan Opera to see a dress rehearsal of an opera. When I was at the Metropolitan Opera, I saw a huge poster outside the bookstore that said Dame Kiri Te Kanawa would be there to sign autographs,” Pupu’a mentioned.

He idea that he would really like to meet the well-known Polynesian opera singer (Te Kanawa is a New Zealander of Maori descent), so he wrote his identify on a work of paper for her to signal.

“She looked up because she saw my name and it obviously looks Polynesian,” Pupu’a mentioned. Interested, Te Kanawa requested Pupu’a what he did. Pupu’a mentioned he stood tall and proud sooner than telling her, “I am a tenor.”

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a as Pollione in the opera “Norma.”

She requested the place he sang, if he was once going to college and how his profession was once doing.

Pupu’a mentioned he checked out her, shrugged, and spoke back, “It’s coming along.” What came about subsequent, he mentioned, was once surreal.

Te Kanawa requested, “Is anybody helping you?” When Pupu’a mentioned he wasn’t receiving any assist, she requested, “Can I help you?”

Pupu’a mentioned he stood there, stunned, no longer registering completely what she mentioned. She repeated her query to Pupu’a, and this time, he permitted.

Te Kanawa referred to as over one in all her bodyguards and requested him to give Pupu’a her quantity and advised Pupu’a to name her.

Pupu’a didn’t cross to the Metropolitan Opera that day. Instead, he floated house on a cloud.

“I don’t know how I got home,” he mentioned.


Within six months of assembly, Te Kanawa organized for some pals of hers at the Juilliard School, together with the head of the vocal division, to listen Pupu’a sing — with out screening him herself.

“She’s never heard me sing (at this point),” Pupu’a mentioned. “I could have gone up there and sang and sounded horrible.”

But he didn’t sound terrible. In truth, he was once one in all 3 permitted into the opera program — on a complete scholarship. When he referred to as his dad to proportion the excellent information, his dad mentioned, “Well that’s nice,” and advised Ta’u Pupu’a he was once satisfied Ta’u Pupu’a made up our minds to get again into song. Then Ta’u Pupu’a referred to as his brother Tipi, who reacted with extra pleasure, however lower their telephone name brief.

“About five minutes later, my dad calls, and … I mean, you could hear (his) joy and tears, and he said, ‘Congratulations! … Your brother just called me and he told me what Juilliard is,’” Ta’u Pupu’a mentioned.

Ta’u Pupu’a graduated from Juilliard in 2011. Since then, his profession has taken him in all places the international to sing — together with China, Germany and several other U.S. states.

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a’s father and aunt assist him get dressed sooner than his Juilliard commencement.

Football and opera

Ta’u Pupu’a’s faculty voice instructor Evelyn Harris isn’t shocked by means of his good fortune with opera.

“I kind of thought … that’s where he would finally end up,” mentioned Harris, who has been educating voice classes since 1957. “He really loved music and really loved singing opera.”

She’s the just one who is no longer shocked. Pupu’a idea evidently that his profession can be soccer. But despite the fact that being in the NFL didn’t pan out — Pupu’a believes soccer ready him to be an opera singer.

“I think that the hard work in football set up all this hard work in the opera field. You have to go to the gym, you just have to practice all the time. And that has trickled down to the way I work in opera,” he mentioned.

I believe like he may hang the prime notes for days — it’s like he can hang them without end.

Kirsten Chambers

Pupu’a defined that, similar to he had to watch motion pictures of himself working towards soccer to know what to give a boost to upon, he spends time on YouTube gazing different opera singers to apply what they do and how they do it, as well as to studying and working towards with his vocal coaches.

Kirsten Chambers, a soprano who has labored with Pupu’a sooner than, consents that his soccer background, his athleticism and self-discipline give him an edge.

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a, heart, as Calaf in “Turandot,” his favourite opera.

“I think so much of what made him a great athlete also made him a great opera singer. The drive, the focus, the stamina, the discipline. It’s exactly the same whether you’re a champion artist or athlete,” Chambers mentioned. “He has stamina for days. … I feel like he could hold the high notes for days — it’s like he can hold them forever.”

Chambers added that it sort of feels like Pupu’a is at all times working towards and finding out to give a boost to.

“He’s just worked constantly, getting himself up to speed,” Chamber mentioned. “He’s always coaching. … Ta’u is just always working.”

For Pupu’a, that paintings is necessary as a result of he needs to take the individuals who pay to see him carry out on a adventure. It’s the identical more or less pleasure, he mentioned, and each soccer avid gamers and singers are performers.

“One has a helmet and shoulder pads and the other one has wigs and makeup and costumes,” Pupu’a mentioned. “When I sing my aria, it’s like you’re the quarterback and you’re throwing a touchdown pass, especially when you … nail every note and every meaning and every part of the character, and you stand there after you finish that aria and you heard the audience roar with bravos and applause and everything. It’s like you just threw a touchdown pass.”

Giving again

Provided by means of Ta’u Pupu’a

Ta’u Pupu’a plays with a Tongan choir in San Francisco.

Now that he is been a success as a Tongan opera singer, Pupu’a is making an attempt to give again — no longer handiest by means of sharing the present of his voice with audiences, however by means of additionally sharing his tradition with audiences and galvanizing Tongan communities. In solo performances, Pupu’a at all times ends with a Tongan tune, and when he visits his house in Salt Lake City, he at all times offers a loose live performance.

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Pupu’a mentioned he hopes to encourage new generations of Polynesians specifically to pursue classical arts.

“The majority of (Polynesians) have beautiful voices, and they love to sing,” Pupu’a mentioned. “I’ve seen a Polynesian person on ‘American Idol,’ and that makes me happy, it makes my heart sing, but in the classical side there’s not a lot.”

It’s been an enchanting adventure to get the place he’s, however Pupu’a expressed no regrets.

“Now I look back and say, this is my calling,” he mentioned. “Music is my calling.”

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