SALT LAKE CITY — As the youngest of nine children in a family from humble circumstances, Ta’u Pupu’a got a lot of hand-me-downs. So when his older brother Tipi got a new pair of black slacks and a white button-down shirt for joining the glee club, Ta’u Pupu’a thought he could do the same.
“I thought to myself … if you want new clothes, just join the glee club!” Ta’u Pupu’a said. “But of course that didn’t work out because I would get Tipi’s hand-me-downs … but I stuck with (singing).”
He stuck with it through high school, where a teacher recognized his talent and encouraged him to participate in a vocal competition as a soloist. He even stuck with it when he went to college with a football scholarship. He had no plan to one day become an opera star — but plans change.
In 1975, the Pupu’a family immigrated to Salt Lake City from Tonga, chasing after the American dream. Part of that meant getting an education not available to them in their native land, and Pupu’a knew that football was the way he could obtain that education. But while he was playing, he was also studying music.
“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,” said Evelyn Harris, Pupu'a’s college voice teacher. “We became acquainted and he became my student.”
He was known for playing football, Harris remembered, “but he also loved to sing.”
Drafted to the NFL
Pupu’a studied music at Weber State University, but he never graduated.
At 6-foot-5 and weighing 290 pounds, Pupu'a was able to run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds and quickly caught the eye of any coach who watched him as a defensive lineman.
“I do have to say now, I was good,” he said.
But he still wasn’t prepared for a phone call that came one Sunday morning in 1995.
Pupu’a described the home he grew up in as “humble.” There was no cable and the family only had one car. He took his parents to church — the whole family are Methodist — and drove back home, planning to attend a later service. When he arrived back at home, one of his brothers-in-law was waiting to inform Pupu’a that he had been drafted by the NFL.
Pupu’a didn’t believe him at first, but his brother-in-law assured him that the NFL was going to call him.
About 20 minutes later, the phone rang. Pupu’a answered the phone and learned that coach 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 said. “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 afford things he never could before. He bought his parents a new car, put TVs and cable in their house. One of his brothers lived in a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and six kids — Pupu’a put them in a five-bedroom home with a big yard for the kids to run around in.
“I was able to do a lot of things, help out my sisters and brothers,” he said. “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 living the American dream — until he wasn’t.
During a practice in 1996 — just a few months into his football career, before he even played in an official game — Pupu’a suffered a severe injury that brought his time with the Cleveland Browns to an end. He attempted to continue to play and other teams invited him to join their workouts, but continued to be plagued by injuries. Finally, he decided he'd had enough.
The $100 bill
Back home with his parents, Pupu’a spent a lot of time thinking about what to do next. What could he do to get his American dream back?
“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 next move for Pupu'a was to serve the other master he had initially turned away from: singing. Without discussing it with any of his family members, Pupu’a decided to move to New York City in 1999.
<strong>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.</strong> – Ta’u Pupu’a
“It was a big shock,” Pupu’a laughed, remembering making the announcement to his family.
“Nobody knew until he made the announcement,” his older brother Tipi Pupu’a said.
His family didn’t know what to expect, 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 said. “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 goodbye to his family was emotional, especially for his grandmother, who was in tears as Ta’u Pupu’a kissed her goodbye. She pulled out a $100 bill to give to him, a huge sum of money for her. She told Ta’u Pupu’a to take it. At first he resisted, telling her that he had enough for his needs, but she insisted. Ta’u Pupu’a recalled her saying, “I know I don’t have much, but I want you to take this, just so you can do something with it.”
Ta’u Pupu’a relented but still felt guilty for taking his grandmother’s money. He thought perhaps he would use it to buy her a Christmas gift, but when Christmastime came near, he bought her a Christmas present with his own money, keeping her $100 bill.
“Can you believe I still have her hundred dollars tucked away?” he said. “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 three months in New York, Ta’u Pupu’a said he fell into a sort of depression. After growing up in Utah, where he felt people were friendlier, New York was a huge change.
“I didn’t understand New York, everything just moved really fast,” he said. “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 give up. So he pressed on. He finally found a voice teacher and worked with her for a couple of years.
“But how do you become an opera singer? That’s the real question,” he said.
Around 2003, after being in New York for a few years, a friend informed him of an audition for a small-scale opera production, Verdi’s "Rigoletto." It was performed in a church with just a piano for accompaniment. Pupu’a landed the starring role as Rigoletto — it was his very first opera. That opera led to another opera, and to another, all on the same small scale — in a church, with a piano. Then, one of Pupu’a’s performances caught the eye of a director who worked for the Regina Opera Company.
Although he now had more consistent work through the opera company, he still hadn’t quite achieved his American dream. Then in 2008, he met the woman who gave his career the push it needed.
“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 said.
He thought that he would love to meet the famous Polynesian opera singer (Te Kanawa is a New Zealander of Maori descent), so he wrote his name on a piece of paper for her to sign.
“She looked up because she saw my name and it obviously looks Polynesian,” Pupu’a said. Interested, Te Kanawa asked Pupu’a what he did. Pupu’a said he stood tall and proud before telling her, “I am a tenor.”
She asked where he sang, if he was going to school and how his career was doing.
Pupu’a said he looked at her, shrugged, and replied, “It’s coming along.” What happened next, he said, was surreal.
Te Kanawa asked, “Is anybody helping you?” When Pupu'a said he wasn't receiving any help, she asked, “Can I help you?”
Pupu’a said he stood there, shocked, not registering totally what she said. She repeated her question to Pupu’a, and this time, he accepted.
Te Kanawa called over one of her bodyguards and asked him to give Pupu’a her number and told Pupu’a to call her.
Pupu’a didn’t go to the Metropolitan Opera that day. Instead, he floated home on a cloud.
“I don’t know how I got home,” he said.
Within six months of meeting, Te Kanawa arranged for some friends of hers at the Juilliard School, including the head of the vocal department, to hear Pupu’a sing — without screening him herself.
“She’s never heard me sing (at this point),” Pupu’a said. “I could have gone up there and sang and sounded horrible.”
But he didn’t sound horrible. In fact, he was one of three accepted into the opera program — on a full scholarship. When he called his dad to share the good news, his dad said, “Well that’s nice,” and told Ta’u Pupu’a he was glad Ta’u Pupu’a decided to get back into music. Then Ta’u Pupu’a called his brother Tipi, who reacted with more excitement, but cut their phone call short.
“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 said.
Ta’u Pupu’a graduated from Juilliard in 2011. Since then, his career has taken him all over the world to sing — including China, Germany and several U.S. states.
Football and opera
Ta’u Pupu’a’s college voice teacher Evelyn Harris isn’t surprised by his success with opera.
“I kind of thought … that’s where he would finally end up,” said Harris, who has been teaching voice lessons since 1957. “He really loved music and really loved singing opera.”
She’s the only one who's not surprised. Pupu’a thought for sure that his career would be football. But even if being in the NFL didn’t pan out — Pupu’a believes football prepared 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 said.
<strong>I feel like he could hold the high notes for days — it’s like he can hold them forever.</strong> – Kirsten Chambers
Pupu’a explained that, much like he had to watch films of himself practicing football to know what to improve upon, he spends time on YouTube watching other opera singers to observe what they do and how they do it, in addition to learning and practicing with his vocal coaches.
Kirsten Chambers, a soprano who has worked with Pupu’a before, agrees that his football background, his athleticism and discipline give him an edge.
“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 said. “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 seems like Pupu’a is always practicing and studying to improve.
“He’s just worked constantly, getting himself up to speed,” Chambers said. “He’s always coaching. … Ta’u is just always working.”
For Pupu’a, that work is important because he wants to take the people who pay to see him perform on a journey. It’s the same kind of excitement, he said, and both football players and singers are performers.
“One has a helmet and shoulder pads and the other one has wigs and makeup and costumes,” Pupu’a said. “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.”
Now that he's been successful as a Tongan opera singer, Pupu'a is trying to give back — not only by sharing the gift of his voice with audiences, but by also sharing his culture with audiences and inspiring Tongan communities. In solo performances, Pupu'a always ends with a Tongan song, and when he visits his home in Salt Lake City, he always gives a free concert.
Pupu'a said he hopes to inspire new generations of Polynesians in particular to pursue classical arts.
"The majority of (Polynesians) have beautiful voices, and they love to sing," Pupu'a said. "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 interesting journey to get where he is, but Pupu'a expressed no regrets.
"Now I look back and say, this is my calling," he said. "Music is my calling."
Correction: A previous version incorrectly stated that the Pupu'a family are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They are Methodist.