It's always tough to serve two maestros.
Utahn Ta'u Pupu'a (Tao Poopoo-AH) learned that when he accepted a scholarship to play football for Weber State University.
Along with his grace on the playing field, Pupu'a is the owner of a rich singing voice, which has caught the ear of the opera world.
"When I went to Weber State University, I thought I could really study music and play football at the same time, because I always got A's in choir class," Pupu'a said in an interview last month in Ogden, when the now-New Yorker was in town to discuss the possibility of performing at Weber State University.
"Well, I had no idea what was involved with a music degree, what I got myself into -- ear training and sight singing and piano? It is really, really hard."
Pupu'a decided while at Weber that he had to focus the bulk of his energies on football. His choice paid off in the short run. Pupu'a was drafted as a defensive end by the Cleveland Browns in 1995. He also played for a time with the Baltimore Ravens.
But after a career-ending break to the arch of his foot, Pupu'a returned to his first passion, singing. He now lives in New York City, where he has sung some impressive roles while working toward a music degree from the Juilliard School.
Pupu'a was born in Tonga, but was raised from toddlerhood in Salt Lake City. Pupu'a and his family were part of the Tongan Methodist Church, the place where Pupu'a first discovered his voice's effect on people.
"My dad was always dragging all of us to the Tongan Methodist Church, and there, if you could carry a tune, you were encouraged to sing out. Well, I would sing the hymns, and people would take notice and prod me to keep at it."
He kept on singing, but also discovered sports, playing for Highland High School. His moves caught the attention of the scouts at Weber State University, and it was there his abilities attracted the notice of legendary football coach Bill Belichick. He invited Pupu'a to a workout with the Cleveland Browns.
"He was very impressed," said Pupu'a of Belichick, then head coach of the Browns. "When I was done, he came up to me and said, 'You're going to make a lot of money.' And I did. And then that was taken away by my injury.
"But now I believe God's hand was in that. Letting me have that opportunity for a little while showed me the better things, the greater good in this world. And then, once I understood that, I was pointed in another direction to discover what else I could do."
After Pupu'a realized his football career was behind him, he confessed to being at a bit of a loss. He returned to Salt Lake City and family, where, at his singing brother's encouragement, he got back to vocal training. That path would lead him to the Utah Opera Chorus, and after that, on to New York City and Juilliard.
Evelyn Harris, who taught voice for many years at Weber State University, taught Pupu'a as her private student during his Weber State University tenure.
"He was a very good student -- very talented, very devoted and interested in doing the best he could," said Harris. "He was just very driven, both in football and as a singer. And he did some nice singing while he was here. But, of course, it is hard to give 100 percent to two such demanding things."
Pupu'a sees much about his two talents that are related: "Playing football and singing almost goes hand-in-hand. The way one breathes, the way one paces himself or herself, is the same. In an opera, you don't want to give it all out in that first act. In football, you don't want to use it all up in that first quarter, because you have three more to go. You have to keep that energy sustained. And both take an incredible amount of energy."
Pupu'a said the trick to mastering both disciplines is rooted in breathing.
"Yoga-style breathing is important -- breathe deep and get that concentration going. In football, you do the same."
Harris had one rather unique challenge when it came to teaching her football-playing power tenor.
"I always cautioned him about how he used his voice on the football field," Harris said. "He told me they do a lot of growling and grunting out there, so I'd caution him not to abuse his voice like that and possibly hurt himself that way."
Musical boot camp
Pupu'a said he arrived in New York City about 10 years ago, with little more than high hopes and raw talent.
"Once I was in New York, I knocked on a lot of doors --me and my suitcase. A lot of teachers said they'd return my call, but they didn't."
He finally did find a teacher who worked with him on the basics while he auditioned for parts. Pupu'a eventually attracted the attention of a respected opera singer, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa. She helped him land his Juilliard audition.
Pupu'a was one of only three of more than 100 who made it into the Opera Studies program for the 2008 school year. It was only then, said Pupu'a, that he realized how very much he didn't know about his newly chosen profession.
"The languages alone -- when I went into Julliard, my comrades there already had at a least a couple years of Italian, French and Russian. Here I am coming in with English and Tongan." He laughed. "Like, there are so many operas written in Tongan! I had a whole lot to learn."
Learn, he has. In a recent review in The New York Times, reviewer James R. Oesterich wrote of Pupu'a: "He seems to have limitless power, so far not entirely tamed. But the voice has real gold in its best moments. ... "
Venues great & small
Pupu'a is slated to graduate from Juilliard in May and already has a good deal of work lined up for 2011. He hopes to squeeze in a Weber State University concert this year as well, but it won't be until fall at the earliest.
After graduation, he starts rehearsals to work on "Tosca," which he will sing in New Zealand in July and August. While there, he will fly to his native island of Tonga and perform for the king.
As for where he most likes to sing, Pupu'a hopes he keeps having opportunities everywhere.
"I have a lot of colleagues that only really want to sing with the (New York) Metropolitan Opera. Me, I just want to sing. It doesn't matter if the house is big or small. Talent should not just be shared with rich and fancy people, but with everyone. If it means singing at small houses, let it be. I want to sing big, small, medium -- the combination of all of that."
Watch Ta'u Pupu'a sing the role of Pinkerton in "Madame Butterfly"