Former NFL lineman becomes opera's leading man
Posted May 31, 2018 5:16 p.m. EDT
NEW YORK (CNN) — Today, Ta'u Pupu'a is an operatic tenor with the voice of an angel. But once upon a time, as an NFL lineman, he made opposing players squeal. The hulking singer's story has more plot twists than an Italian libretto.
Small Island to the big field
Pupu'a, his parents and eight siblings emigrated from the Polynesian islands of Tonga when he was five years old. They settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, in search of the American dream. Pupu'a says his father worked six days a week as a dishwasher and a landscaper to make ends meet. It wasn't enough.
"There were times when I would come home and there was no electricity because we didn't have the money."
The older siblings also went to work to help provide for the household.
Pupu'a says their sacrifices instilled in him a strong work ethic and a desire to give back to the family.
To afford college, Pupu'a turned to football.
"I knew that in order to have college you had to have money or you have to have some kind of scholarship," he says.
"I knew that football gave a lot of money to kids that may play for their school."
Pupu'a earned a full athletic scholarship to Webster State University in Ogden, Utah. After college, he went professional.
"When I got drafted by the Cleveland Browns ... a lot of emotions ran through me, because I looked at the way we were living," he says.
"My dad will have a car. ... We will have cable in the house so they can watch me play. I was very grateful."
The injury that changed everything
It was a practice, not a game. But professionals train with intensity, and one of his teammates accidentally landed on Pupu'a's foot, crushing his arch and, ultimately, his NFL career.
Pupu'a says a small voice guided him to his unusual second act.
"It was a rainy day -- I looked up to the heavens and I said, 'What is my calling?' " the former athlete says.
"And this small voice came in me and said, 'Move forward. Move to New York and go and sing.' "
Pupu'a first heard opera as a teen. His brother played it in the house, and the then-high school football star wanted no part of it. But now it was his new passion.
He got work as a host in a restaurant across the street from the Metropolitan Opera. His plan was simple: meet opera stars and study them like a "playbook."
"I would watch what kind of food they would eat --- does it cause phlegm?" he recalls.
"What do they drink? Is it alcohol, because alcohol dries out your cords."
After three years in the restaurant, Pupu'a says a fateful meeting with Polynesian opera star Kiri Te Kanawa changed his life.
Te Kanawa was signing autographs in the Metropolitan Opera bookstore.
"I stood in line for about an hour and finally got to her."
Pupu'a introduced himself, briefly told the star his story and won over a powerful fan.
"She called one of her people and she said, 'Give this guy my phone number' and she said 'call me tonight and we will talk.'"
A new kind of game day
Months after they met, Pupu'a says Te Kanawa took him to sing in front of the head of the vocal department at Juilliard.
"I sang my heart out," Pupu'a recalls.
His mentor described the former football player's voice as a diamond in need of polishing, and she was committed to helping him shine.
Pupu'a spent the next month preparing to try out for Julliard's artist diploma program.
"When the day finally came, I walked into the room. There were at least 20 faculty with a piano."
He sang five operatic arias and a monologue, in French, German and Italian.
"I was thinking, it is game day."
Out of about 100 singers auditioning, Pupu'a was one of three selected. And he won a scholarship.
Never give up
Today, Pupu'a is an acclaimed opera singer who takes great joy in sharing his gift with the world.
"For me, the most satisfaction that I have is when I walk off the stage and I know that I have given my all," he says.
The artist's life is being detailed in a book entitled "The Odyssey of Tevita Ta'u Pupu'a."
His hope is to inspire the generation after him to follow their most daring and surprising dreams.
"There is always an opportunity," he says.
"Never give up."