Tongan immigrant goes from NFL player to opera star

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — A former NFL player who migrated to Utah from Tonga as a child has found success as an opera singer, performing in productions around the world.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Ta’u Pupu’a played football and studied music at Weber State University, the Deseret News reported .

“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.”

Pupu’a was known for playing football, Harris remembered, “but he also loved to sing.”

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Pupu’a never graduated from Weber after being drafted in 1995 by then Cleveland Browns head coach Bill Belichick.

During a practice in 1996 — before he even played in an official game — Pupu’a suffered a severe injury that brought his time with the Browns to an end. He attempted to continue to play but was plagued by injuries.

Pupu’a decided to move to New York City in 1999 to pursue singing.

After three months in New York, 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.

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“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.”

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.

In 2008, he met the woman — Polynesian opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa — who gave his career the push it needed.

She asked where he sang, if he was going to school and how his career was doing.

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Pupu’a said he looked at her, shrugged, and replied, “It’s coming along.” What happened next, he said, was surreal.

Te Kanawa arranged for some friends of hers at the Juilliard School, including the head of the vocal department, to hear Pupu’a sing.

He was one of three accepted into the opera program

Pupu’a graduated from Juilliard in 2011. Since then, his singing career has taken him all over the world.


Information from: Deseret News,