The Tall Tenor From Tonga Does Tosca | Connecticut Public Radio
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The Tall Tenor From Tonga Does Tosca

Oct 29, 2015

When I see a press release about a guy who started off being drafted into the NFL as a defensive end and then decided to become a professional opera singer instead, I reflexively think headlines:

"Former Gridiron Star Tackles Verdi."

"Defensive End Calls an Audible, With Vibrato."

"Now He's Holding High Cs Instead of Wide Receivers."

Please, somebody stop me.

The singer inspiring these lines is a tenor named Ta'u Pupu'a (TAH-oo Pu-PU-ah), and he is scheduled to star in the Connecticut Concert Opera's production of Puccini's "Tosca," Friday, October 30, and repeated Sunday afternoon.

Pupu'a is a native of the tiny island Kingdom of Tonga, a sovereign country of Polynesia. (To stretch the football references, the entire population of Tonga – roughly 100,000 -- could fit into Ohio State's stadium.)

He is the youngest of nine children. When he was a boy, his family moved to Utah, and he mostly grew up in and around Salt Lake City.

After establishing himself as a standout defensive lineman for the tiny Weber College, the 6'5" 290-pound Pupu'a was drafted in 1995 by the Cleveland Browns, who promptly became the Baltimore Ravens. But a serious foot injury cut his football career short and got him thinking about what he really wanted to do in life. And what he really wanted to do was sing opera.

Tau' Pupu'a with his teacher, Evelyn Reynolds.
Credit taupupua.com
The math suggests Ta'u Pupu'a is 40ish -- a tenor's sweet spot.

The story gets even less plausible. After moving to New York and spending several years singing sporadically, but mostly supporting himself as a waiter, he had one of those moments that so many performing artists need to have. The year was 2007, and he decided to wander over to the Met Opera Shop at Lincoln Center and stand in line at an author's book signing. The author was soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, herself of Polynesian descent.

Pupu'a introduced himself, she took an interest in his story, and one thing led to another: eventually she sponsored his application to The Juilliard School. He was not only admitted; he was given a full scholarship. He graduated from the school’s Opera Center in 2011.

Since graduating, Pupu'a has been doing the one thing that all opera singers aspire to: working steadily. He has been appearing at respectable houses on both sides of the Atlantic (and even on it, as a performer on a Met-sponsored opera cruise), and he has been doing various symphonic concert gigs.

Although his press material is a tad cozy about it, the math suggests that he is 40-ish. Fortunately, that can be a tenor's sweet spot, so there is no need for undue anxiety.

In other words, Pupu'a still has a chance for a major career. And Doris Kosloff, the artistic director of Concert Opera, advises people not to bet against him.

Connecticut Concert Opera, incidentally -- for those who don't know this ambitious company -- is a fully professional outfit that, among other distinctions, makes a point of hiring union musicians for its orchestra.

And in recent seasons, the company performs at the exquisite Hoffman Auditorium at the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.

For information on this production of "Tosca," visit connconcertopera.org.

Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at spmetcalf55@gmail.com.