From the field to the stage

Returning to his home turf this Friday for Homecoming Week, Ta’u Pupu’a, former Weber State University football star, will have a chance to play again at WSU. Except this time, he’s playing at the opera.

Pupu’a received a full-ride football scholarship to WSU in the early ’90s. He accepted the scholarship and became the team’s defensive tackle, but his love for football was paralleled by a distinctly different interest: singing.

Karen Brookens, professor of voice and vocal pedagogy and director of the opera program at WSU, said she is looking forward to meeting Pupu’a when he comes to visit the vocal students in their voice master class prior to his performance. Though she has never heard him sing live, she has seen video clips of his performances online.

“It seems he has a beautiful tenor voice,” Brookens said. “It’s very full and rich. I’m anxious to hear him.”

Brookens isn’t the only professor looking forward to Friday. Evelyn Harris, one of Pupu’a’s professors and his personal voice coach from his student days, was excited at the news.

“He was such an asset to the department when he was here,” Harris said. “He was here on a football scholarship, (and) that was his way to go to school, but he loved music equally. He was just an unusually talented person in two different ways.”

Pupu’a attributes his background as a  church choir member to his initial love for singing. As a boy, he attended the Tongan Methodist Church with his family in Salt Lake City. There, people heard his voice and encouraged him to continue singing.  When he reached WSU, it felt natural to study music.

“I think singing was a seed that was planted in me when I was a child,” Pupu’a said. “But, the love came when I was in college. I knew when college football was finished, I needed something to fall back on. I needed to find something I really did love.”

During his studies at WSU, Pupu’a was drafted into the NFL and played for the Cleveland Browns. Even as a professional NFL player, his love for music would not be stifled.

“During the off season, I used to come home to Utah,” Pupu’a said. “Some people love to go hiking or biking. I love to sing. So I called Evelyn Harris up and asked her if I could come see her.”

Harris always agreed and has fond memories of their voice lessons between NFL seasons.

During his NFL career, he broke the arch of his foot and was unable to continue playing. He returned home to Salt Lake City and turned his full attention back to music. He joined the Utah Opera Chorus and went on to graduate from Juilliard, a prestigious school in New York state for the performing arts.

Now, opera is a huge part of his life. This year, Pupu’a has made his official debut as a professional opera tenor.

“Opera is one of the oldest styles of entertainment,” Pupu’a said. “Before Brittany Spears and other singers, you had opera and live shows. I love opera so much, because it’s something that I can share with other people. It’s almost a spiritual experience of opening up and sharing my being with the audience.”

Pupu’a’s performance starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Browning Center’s Austad Auditorium. For more information, students can visit the Homecoming Calendar on WSU’s website.