Ta'u Pupu'a: from football player to opera singer

When Ta'u Pupu'a was drafted to the National Football League in the United States, he thought he would be playing professional football for most of his life.

When Ta'u Pupu'a was drafted to the National Football League in the United States, he thought he would be playing professional football for most of his life.

But then a foot injury ended the Tongan football player's sporting career, and drew him to revisit his first passion - singing opera.

Pupu'a has recently finished a run of shows performing the opera Tosca as the main tenor Mario Cavaradosci at the Hawaii Opera Theatre.

He is now being recognised not for his skills on the football field but for his performances on stage.

Humble beginnings

Ta'u refers to his background and upbringing as something that has kept him grounded but hopeful.

His family moved from Tonga to the United States when he was around eight years old, the youngest of nine siblings.

"My father wanted us to have a better education," Ta'u said. "Being the first generation in America, you grew up poor because there are no connections...so you start from the ground up".

His parents worked several jobs to make ends meet and his older siblings started working when they were in their teens to support him and the family.

Growing up in economic hardship, Ta'u became aware from a young age that excelling in football would give him an opportunity to go to college.

"I started when I was ten, eleven years old...but in the back of my mind, I knew that if I wanted to go further in life and in my education, I had to stick with [football]," Ta'u said.

"The only way that I was able to attend college was through sports, through football, and that's what I did, and that's how I went through life."

Ta'u was accepted into Weber State University in Utah on a full football scholarship during which time he was drafted to the NFL to the Cleveland Browns. He later went on to play for the Baltimore Ravens.

"I was very blessed to (be able to) continue on my journey from college to the NFL," he said.

Unconventional path

After his football career was cut short by injury, Ta'u's singing talent was discovered by Dame Kiri te Kanawa who gave him his first break.

"I approached her with CDs and DVDs that I had of hers and wanted her to sign it, and she looked up and saw me. In New York, when you see a Polynesian person...you click, you come together and become a family, because we are so far away from our homeland," Ta'u said.

"So when she looked up and saw me, she automatically knew that I was Polynesian and asked me what I was doing in New York. I told her that I live here and I am trying to pursue a singing career.

"Right off the bat, she knew that this was a hard life and she asked me if I had any help. I said no. And she said, 'well, can I help you?' I said, 'yes, please do.'"

Seven months later, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa took Ta'u Pupu'a to The Julliard school of performing arts. After a series of auditions, he was offered a four-year scholarship to study as a tenor and became Julliard's first Polynesian student and first Polynesian graduate.

"Ever since then, [Dame Kiri Te Kanawa] has been my mentor, she has been a wonderful angel in my life. A lot of what I have now is because of her," Ta'u said.

Keeping the faith

Ta'u believes it is his faith in his talent that has allowed him to overcome the obstacles for such a dramatic change in his career path.

"A news reporter said it must have taken a lot of courage to move to New York. I said to the news reporter I had no courage, the only thing I had was faith," Ta'u explained.

"I moved to New York with faith, courage came later."

Despite all the struggles he has faced, Ta'u continues to encourage others to pursue their dreams and not to give up.

"Do not let your dreams die but continue on living your dreams, and if that one door is closed, many more doors will open."