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Touchdown opera: Former NFL player fields second career in music

Pupu'a 'a voice to be reckoned with' in Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre productions

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Football’s loss is opera’s gain — which Paramount Theatre audiences will discover when former NFL player Ta’u Pupu’a tackles the lead roles in “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci” on Jan. 13 and 15.

The Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre is pairing the two Italian operas, both rife with passion and murder, jealousy and rage — playing to Pupu’a’s physical and vocal strengths.

“Ta’u is a great tenor with a huge instrument,” Daniel Kleinknecht, the opera theater’s founder and conductor, said of the tenor who was born in Tonga but raised in Utah. “He’s a very large man. ... He might be the largest-voiced person I’ve ever heard in my entire life. You need big voices for these pieces; Ta’u is definitely a voice that is to be reckoned with.”

Football and music have gone hand in hand for Pupu’a since childhood — and he’s scored careers in both.

A one-time defensive end for the Cleveland Browns in the mid-1990s, he turned to opera after breaking the arch of his foot at the start of his second season, when the Browns became the Baltimore Ravens.

“When that took me away, I moved back to Utah a little bit depressed,” Pupu’a said by phone from his apartment in New York City. “And I thought, ‘Now what Lord? What am I supposed to do?’ And something within me said, ‘Pack your suitcase and move to New York, because if you’re an actor, you would pack your suitcase and move to California, but you know what? Let’s go on this singing ride.’”

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND

So he headed East in 2000 to begin meeting people in the industry. His father had encouraged him to look up the opera singer from New Zealand — Dame Kiri Te Kanawa — since they shared a Polynesian heritage.

“I said, ‘Dad, you don’t just go and look for famous people and say, I’m an opera singer, why don’t you help me?’”

But sometimes, father knows best.

After about seven or eight years in New York, Pupu’a was at the Metropolitan Opera to see a show, and saw a poster saying Te Kanawa would be signing autographs at the bookstore the next day. He went there, grabbed a CD for her to sign, and waited in line.

Something about this 6-foot-5-inch man struck a chord with her.

She put down her pen, looked straight at him and said, “What are you doing here? Are you a singer?” He replied, “Yes. I’m a tenor,” and she began asking questions about his career aspirations and preparation.

When she asked how things were going, he took a deep breath.

“She looked at me and said, ‘Let me help you. I want to help you.’ I literally just stood there dumbfounded. I didn’t know what to say, and she had to repeat herself. She goes, ‘Can I help you?’ And I said, ‘OK.’” An assistant gave him her phone number, and she said, “Call me tonight.”

He did, indeed, call her that night and met with her. About six months later, when she was back in town to give a concert at Carnegie Hall, she had Pupu’a come backstage, then took him to Juilliard to sing for Brian Zeger, artistic director of vocal arts at the famed performing arts conservatory. She got him in the door — his talent and tenacity got him a full scholarship.

He called his dad, who said, “That’s nice. I’m so happy you decided to go back to school.” Then Pupu’a called his brother, who had turned him onto classical music.

“Five minutes later, my dad was screaming on the other end of the line. He was in tears. He said, ‘Oh my gosh — your brother just called and told me about Juilliard and what kind of school it is. Oh my gosh, I’m just so proud of you.’

“It was fantastic. It was a wonderful journey,” Pupu’a said of his Juilliard experience.

IOWA TIE

That older brother was the reason Pupu’a got into music. As the youngest of nine children, he grew up hearing his parents and siblings singing in Methodist church choirs in Tonga, then Salt Lake City, where the family moved when he was 5, to join relatives who were seeking new opportunities there.

Young Ta’u saw that the way to get new clothes was to sing in concerts. So even though he would come home from football practice in his youth and wonder about that classical “garbage” he heard his brother singing — with words he couldn’t understand and no drums — “with time and reason,” it would led him to music. And his brother’s concert hand-me-downs, he said with a laugh.

During junior college, the standout football player was heavily recruited by the big schools, and in 1992, Pupu’a made his first trip to Iowa, to check out the Hawkeyes. Stanford also called up the defensive end, but he opted for Weber State University in Ogden, Utah, where he knew he’d get to play right away, not warm a bench.

“I should have had faith in myself,” he said, “but when you’re 6-5 and 280 and fast, you want to play.”

He figured music would be an easy major. He was wrong.

“When I was there, I thought to myself, dear lord — all this (football) practice, what can I take so I could make the load a little bit easier? I thought, why don’t I major in music? How hard is that? It cannot be hard to go in, show up to choir class and sing.

“So I decided to major in music. Gosh, I was in for a rough ride. I had no idea that you had to learn music theory, ear training, sight-singing. I was blown away. Thank God I got drafted (to the NFL) before I even graduated. That saved me.

“I remember in class, the teacher will sit there and go, ‘I want everyone to close your eyes, and I want you to listen to the hum (from) the light over our heads. Now Ta’u, can tell what pitch that hum is?’ I’m sitting there thinking to myself, ‘I’d rather run around and hit quarterbacks.’ I looked at him and he looked at me. He knew, so he gave me a wink, and I’m like, ‘Pass. Can I get a lifeline?’”

TWO LIFELINES

Football would be that first lifeline, giving him a taste of buying whatever he wanted — a house for his brother’s family, a car for his parents — a million miles from life in a grass hut on an island in Tonga, east of Australia. It’s a homeland he remembers, a heritage of which he is proud, and a lifestyle where if you’re hungry, you just walk off the road and pick a banana. But he’s thrilled and humbled by the opportunities his life in America has afforded.

“I believe everything happens for a reason,” he said. “(Football) was a way for me to help out the family, but also have that taste of being able to do it.

“When football ended, I wanted more of that. More of helping out the community. I wanted more of helping out my family. I wanted more of this kind of lifestyle, because the only kind of lifestyle I knew was like, you don’t have anything. I didn’t want to go back there, so I decided to roll up my sleeves and go after this singing, and it’s been good.”

However, he’s discovered the paycheck from football is a little more “fun” than the paycheck from opera, he said with a hearty laugh.

The playing fields level out in many other aspects.

“They’re both dramatic and you’re performing in front of an audience — one is in a stadium, the other one is in a hall. They both demand the same kind of things, but I enjoy both of them,” he said.

“In opera, all the soloists want to be the quarterback — they all want to throw that touchdown pass, which is our arias. That’s what the audience in the opera world waits for — that touchdown pass when someone sings ‘Nessun dorma’ or ‘La donna e mobile’ — something that’s really famous for them, and at end, they can’t wait to cheer, because you’ve thrown a good touchdown pass,” he said.

“I would peg the conductor as the coach who is trying to keep everything aligned — all the orchestra people, and then looking at us onstage, keeping everyone together on the same page.

“We have our wigs and makeup, and that’s our helmet and our costumes, just like our shoulder pads and helmets,” he noted.

“One is just played on a platform, the other one on turf or grass. For me, it’s the same, because you’re performing. You’re giving people an experience that they have not experienced before — a great game or a great opera.”

Both career paths also require physical commitment and discipline, taking his social life “down the toilet.” Alcohol dries out the vocal cords and partying was off-limits before a big game.

“Operas are long and demanding,” he said. “Like football, you have to pace yourself. When you get into rehearsal, you don’t want to kill yourself, and you don’t want to blow yourself out in the first quarter. ...

“I’ve been given two gifts, and I’ve used them both proudly.”

IF YOU GO

What: Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre presents “Cavalleria rusticana” and “Pagliacci”

Where: Paramount Theatre, 123 Third Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday (1/13) and 2 p.m. Jan. 15

Tickets: $19 to $69, Paramount Ticket Office, (319) 366-8203 or Paramounttheatrecr.com/Events

Details: Cr-opera.org/Content/Season/CAVALLERIA-RUSTICANA-PAGLIACCI-Details.aspx

l Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

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