Before he was an opera singer, Tongan-born tenor Ta’u Pupu’a (seen in the roles of Omaha and Robert in
Heart of a Soldier) was an athlete. A linebacker in the NFL, to be exact. Pupu’a was drafted by the Cleveland Browns and then the Baltimore Ravens before a career-ending injury motivated him to go back to his first love: singing. How does a football player make this unconventional career transition? We had the same question. Read on to hear Ta'u's story in his own words. Check back again soon to read more about the connections between football and singing...there are more than you may think!
I studied music in college and I wanted to sing, but I was too involved in football, and football took me to a professional career in the NFL. I left the sport because I broke the arch of my foot. I had the opportunity to come back to the sport three times. But one morning when I was recuperating I woke up and thought to myself, “What is my calling? What is my purpose in life?” Because I believe that everyone has a purpose in life – you just have to find out what that is. Then something inside of me said, “Go towards music.” And I thought, “Really?”
So I moved to New York. I went to find a voice teacher and I met a few, but I was so green. I went to one who said, “You really have a voice, a real diamond in the rough. You just need help. Call me.” So I called, and then I get no returned calls. Luckily, I came across a friend of mine who is a former Adler: Catherine Keen. She said, “There is this one lady. She’s 90 years old and she doesn’t teach many singers anymore, but you might want to look into her.” And I did. Her name is Evelyn Reynolds, and she started me with breathing lessons for two and a half months. She is 95 now! We had something in common. One of her brothers owned one of the NFL teams back in the day. [Above: Ta'u as Omaha in Heart of a Soldier. Photo by Cory Weaver.]
In March 2007, I went to a performance of Il Trittico at the Met, and I saw a poster saying Dame Kiri Te Kanawa will be signing autographs at the performance. I was so excited because she is also Polynesian – she’s half, and I’m full. After Il Tabarro I went out and stood in line. They had me write my name beforehand so she would know to write “To Ta’u Pupu’a, from Dame Kiri.” She looked at my name on the card and looked up to me. She then said, “What do you do?”
I exclaimed, “I’m a tenor!” She asked if I was in school, and I said no. And then she said, “How can I help you?” I looked at her and didn’t understand what she meant. She then said, “I would like to help you.”
Next, she turned to her assistant and said, “Robert, give him my phone number.” And she turned back to me and said, “Call me. Call me tonight.” I got her number and I was on Cloud Nine! The intermission finished with Suor Angelica and I was so anxious I couldn’t even sit through Gianni Schicchi. I walked home and kept thinking, “What just happened??”
Once I got home I began pacing the floor. Do I call her now? When? Four hours later I decide, “I’m calling her.” The phone rings and rings and I’m thinking “Dear Lord, let it be the answering machine. I don’t know if I the guts to speak to her.”
The phone rings and rings and then she picks up the phone and I freak out. I say, “May I speak to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa please?” And she says “This is she.” And I freak out again. I then say, “Hi Dame Kiri, this is Ta’u Pupu’a, and I met you earlier today at the signing.” And she says, “Who?”
I think “Oh my gosh, she doesn’t remember me.” I remind her I’m from Tonga, and she says “Oh yes! Do you have time to meet?”
I’m so excited and tell her that I would love to meet up. And then she asks if we can meet tonight! I was just floored. I was just getting into opera at the time and there was this little opera company I was working with in Brooklyn. I was singing Cavaradossi in Tosca and I was supposed to be at rehearsal that night. And I thought, “Heck no! I’m going to meet Dame Kiri tonight and be late for that rehearsal. So I met with her and we talked. She said she would be back in New York in October for a concert in Carnegie Hall, and she wanted to meet with me then.
In October, she tells me to meet her at Juilliard. So I show up at Julliard to sing for her for the first time. She takes me into this room that is full of carpet and curtain – dead room. Oh God, it’s my first time singing for her and it’s in a dead room! In the room is Brian Zeger, the head of Juilliard’s Vocal Arts department. Kiri says, “Ok, we’re going to hear you sing.” And I think to myself, “I’ve never sung for this woman before. I could be crap. And she’s bringing me to the top man at Juilliard!?!” So I sing my first aria. They turn to each other and say, “Yes, there is something there. Do you have another piece?” So I sing another piece from Rigoletto. Kiri then says to Brian, “He just needs polishing. What can we do for him?” [Above: Ta'u as Robert in Heart of a Soldier. Photo by Cory Weaver]
Brian says, “Yes, there is talent there, but I can’t just give him a place in a program. He has to audition and apply like everyone else, with five arias and a monologue. Kiri then turns to me and says, “Ok. Can you do it in a month, before the deadline?” And I agree.
I really wanted to get into this school. One thing I learned in football is that you have to be prepared, and that’s what I try to bring to this music world. I can never show up to a place and not be prepared. To learn the words and rhythms, I have to know them ahead of time. Like in football, you have to know the plays before you get on the field.
I walk into the audition, dressed up in my suit, and I was so nervous, but in a good way, because I knew I was prepared. I said hi to Brian and I told him the arias I was doing, as well as a monologue from The Fantasticks.
At midnight they list the names of those who are moving forward in the audition process. I come back at midnight, and I’m looking for my name, and at the very bottom I see it! Next comes the second round of auditions in Juilliard’s big auditorium. Again, you come back at the end of the day and see if you made the cut. And I did! Now they are down to 9 candidates out of 70 or 80 applicants. Finally, all of the candidates go through interviews. In December 2007, I got a call congratulating me for getting into the honors program. I was one of only four people that were accepted. I just cried, “Oh my God, thank you so much!” I called Kiri, and she was teary and congratulated me. I thanked her, and she said, “No, my job is just to show you the door. It’s up to you to go through that door.”