Footballer to opera singer

From New Zealand’s Dominion Post (7/4/2015)

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa has been credited with fostering the most unlikely of opera prodigies – an ex-professional American football player.

Tonga-born Ta’u Pupu’a, who lives in the United States, began his working life in 1995 as a defensive lineman for the Cleveland Browns, the NFL team that later became the Baltimore Ravens.

His career took an abrupt turn when a 158-kilogram opponent trod on him and broke the arch in one of his feet, forcing him to look at alternative livelihoods.

Inspired by a childhood spent singing in church alongside his father, a Methodist preacher, he resettled in New York in the hope of making it on Broadway.

“I had siblings who would sing in the Tongan choir, so that’s how show music was introduced into my life, but the thing that really inspired me was Dame Kiri Te Kanawa,” he said. “Knowing that one of the best singers in the world was of Polynesian origin meant a lot.”

Although he got parts in amateur productions, Pupu’a was finding it tough when he spotted a poster saying that Te Kanawa would be signing books at the Metropolitan Opera bookshop.

“I got to the front and she looked up and saw that I was Polynesian. And she said, ‘What are you doing here?’

“I puffed up like a peacock and said, ‘I’m a tenor,’ and she said, ‘Where are you studying?’ ” When he admitted that he was not a student, she handed him her card and told him to call her later.

Pupu’a “floated home” in awe at what had happened, and spent the next three hours plucking up courage to call her. “I thought, what do I say to a dame?”

Te Kanawa arranged an audition at the Juilliard School in Manhattan, which contains one of the most prestigious singing academies in the world. Pupu’a won a full scholarship and trained for three years.

He emerged in 2011 and began his new career at San Francisco Opera. His appearance [with Birmingham Opera Company] last week in The Ice Break is his second role outside America. He portrays a cocky character, apparently based on Muhammad Ali, who comes to a sticky end. “Come on, this is opera,” Pupu’a said. “Everybody dies.”

His football skills were surprisingly useful when it came to singing. “Opera and football go hand in hand. You need to pace yourself so you don’t over-sing or you don’t blow yourself out in the first quarter. The discipline is the same.

“You don’t go out and party the night before. The diet is the same. You learn how to sing with finesse and with power and at the same time deliver a message.