The story most news outlets like to tell about Ta’u Pupu’a is that he was a professional football player who went on to become an opera singer.
But the tale we prefer is the other one — the one about an impoverished child who’d been around music throughout his childhood but didn’t give it much thought until he realized it might be a way to finally get some respectable clothes.
The youngest of nine children, Pupu’a grew up in humble circumstances where his family couldn’t always afford new clothes. By the time he was a teenager, Pupu’a had gotten pretty sick of wearing his older siblings’ duds.
“Growing up the youngest, I always got the hand-me-downs from everybody else,” Pupu’a explained. “Fast-forward to junior high. My brother got into choir, and I figured my parents would buy him clothes for the choir. So I thought, ‘If I joined the choir, I’d get new clothes.’”
Who knew that devious little plan would eventually lead to performances around the world?
RELATED: A Night at the Opera
Pupu’a was born in Tonga but moved to Salt Lake City with his family when he was just 5 years old. Blessed with size and speed, he ended up playing football at Weber State University, followed by a brief career in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns under then-coach Bill Belichick back in the mid-1990s.
After suffering a couple of foot injuries early in his NFL career, Pupu’a pivoted to opera. He went on to attend the prestigious Juilliard School in New York City — he’d studied music while at Weber State — and today has performed with opera companies here and abroad.
Pupu’a confesses he became a music major at Weber State because it didn’t seem like a difficult academic program to pursue.
“I had no idea how tough music was,” he said. “I didn’t know there was music theory, and ear training, and sight singing. I just thought it was an easy A.”
Pupu’a brings his tenor pipes to Ogden on Saturday, March 24, for a concert titled “Night at the Opera.” Backed by the Chamber Orchestra Ogden, Pupu’a will be joined on stage by soprano Karen Bruestle, the director of vocal pedagogy and opera at Weber State. The event begins at 7:30 p.m. in Peery’s Egyptian Theater, at 2415 Washington Blvd., Ogden.
“They’re going to do a couple of duets, and they’ll each do arias,” Chamber Orchestra Ogden director Michael Palumbo said. “And as a finale, for the encore, the audience may have their chance to join the opera singers.”
The concert will feature well-known arias such as “Nessun Dorma,” from Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot”; “Vilia,” from Franz Lehar’s “The Merry Widow”; and “La Donna e Mobile,” from Giuseppe Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” Pupu’a and Bruestle will also perform the duet “Libiamo, Ne’lieti Calici,” from Verdi’s “La Traviata.”
The 63-member Chamber Orchestra Ogden will open the program with Vincenzo Bellini’s overture to “Norma.” Also during the evening — “to give the singers a chance to take a breath,” Palumbo explains — the orchestra will perform the Intermezzo from Pietro Mascagini’s “Cavalleria Rusticana” as well as the final section of Gioachino Rossini’s “William Tell Overture.”
“It’s everybody’s favorite piece,” Palumbo said of the Rossini overture, “which many recognize as the theme to ‘The Lone Ranger.’”
Tickets for the concert are $8 and may be purchased at the door an hour before the concert or online at brownpapertickets.com/event/3320894.
Active military, veterans and their families are admitted free at the door, as are music students ages 8 to 18.
Organizers say well-behaved children age 8 and older are welcome to attend.
Bruestle is a recent replacement for the original soprano who was going to perform with Pupu’a on Saturday.
“I think there was somebody who was supposed to sing with Ta’u, but she’s been ill, so they approached me,” Bruestle said.
Bruestle calls Pupu’a “kind of a character.”
“He’s very thoughtful. He’s funny. He loves what he does and has a passion for it,” she said. “And he has such an interesting, unique background.”
Bruestle, who heads the opera program at Weber State, is impressed with the former football player’s voice.
“I’ve heard him live,” she said. “The color of his voice is really beautiful, and he has a lot of energy and passion in his singing.”
With his large stature and even larger personality, Pupu’a will be much more than just a big voice up there singing, according to Bruestle. She said the evening will be a visual, kinesthetic, experience.
“You can’t just ‘park and bark’ — where you just stand there and sing,” Bruestle said. “Those days are over with. An audience really does want to be entertained with characters, and with realism. That’s why musical theater has been popular.”
Pupu’a, who now lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, says it’s been awhile since he last sang in Utah.
“I am very excited about coming to Ogden,” he said. “I’ve sung all over the world — Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden — but there’s just something about home that brings back this smile within myself. I’m coming home for a concert.”
Saturday’s performance will definitely be a “home game” for Pupu’a. He joked that audience members might want to purchase their tickets early, as his large Utah family is planning on attending.
“I have heaps of family there. Just heaps,” he said. “They’re everywhere. I come from a big family.”
Most of that family lives in the Salt Lake Valley, but some are scattered in Weber and Utah counties.
Pupu’a says he wants to use the concert to bring to Utah some of the flavors of the places he’s been around the world.
“For me, this concert really means a lot because a lot of my people — the Polynesian people — have never been to an opera or a classical setting,” he said.
Although he grew up around choral music, Pupu’a admits his introduction to opera — back in his teens — was less than memorable. Most of the music was in German or Italian, and he couldn’t understand it.
“I remember saying, ‘This is ugly music. You can’t even understand what they’re saying,’” Pupu’a recalls. “It was ridiculous.”
It wasn’t until he began listening with his heart — not just his ears — that Pupu’a began to understand operatic music.
“And then I started hearing the different colors of the music,” he said. “Something inside of me, my soul, was moved. For me, I think classical music and opera is the music of the gods.”
Pupu’a says it doesn’t bother him that, all these years later, he’s still thought of as the football-playing opera singer — or maybe it’s the opera-singing football player. It’s just a part of who he is.
“Without football, I would not be here,” he said. “So I embrace everything that I’ve been blessed with. … Football was the vehicle that took me through college, because my family couldn’t afford it.”
And for all Pupu’a has accomplished in his life, the fat lady is nowhere near getting ready to sing. Still on his bucket list are performances in Hong Kong, Beijing, Russia, France and Egypt.
When he thinks back on his greatest professional moment — either on the football field or the opera stage — Pupu’a says it’s not some personal accomplishment that he remembers.
“I would say that my greatest moment is not just a ‘me’ moment,” he said. “I think my greatest moment is when I was able to perform on an operatic stage and have my dad there in the audience. To have my brother and my dad sitting in the audience watching me? That’s one of my greatest moments.
“For me, my greatest moment is sharing with others.”