The sidewalks of New York are a veritable beacon for performers from all corners of the arts, dazzling many with delusions of stardom, and daring all to hope that their own combination of luck, hard work, and talent will carry them to a career. Few of those performers, though, stand 6-foot-5, hail from the Polynesian kingdom of Tonga, have played defensive end in the NFL, and are operatic tenors. That one would be Ta'u Pupu'a (TAH-ooh pu-PU-ah), who takes the Tennessee Theatre stage this weekend in the role of Pollione in Knoxville Opera's production of Vincenzo Bellini's Norma.
Pupu'a's story of success could probably rival many operatic plots for its tale of natural abilities twisted by the whims of fortune. At the age of 5, his family emigrated from Tonga to Salt Lake City, where, as a teenager, he was known in church and school for his fine tenor voice and on the football field for his size and athletic ability. Although he secured a football scholarship at Weber State in Ogden, Utah, he majored in music. Football, though, was his focus at the time, and it paid off—he was a fifth-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns, soon to be the Baltimore Ravens, in 1995.
A foot injury ended his career with the Ravens after only two seasons, and Pupu'a returned to Utah, dispirited and unsure of his future. While there, he joined the Utah Opera Chorus, where he was inspired and encouraged to look to a future with his voice.
With his passion for opera in full gear, and willing to take a chance, Pupu'a moved to New York in 1999 and found the same obstacles many singers face. Although he had majored in music at Weber State, he had not graduated. And, without a voice teacher or the necessary foreign-language skills, the sidewalks of the city were indeed hard and unforgiving. So, like many actors and singers looking for a big break, he took a restaurant job—at O'Neals, across the street from Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Opera, where opera greats and their followers dined and schmoozed.
One lucky break, though, can change everything. In 2007, at an autograph signing at the Met Opera gift shop, Pupu'a met Kiri Te Kanawa, the New Zealand soprano of Maori descent. Learning of Pupu'a's operatic aspirations, Te Kanawa agreed to help him. Later that year, she arranged an audition for him at the Juilliard School, which resulted in a full scholarship in the opera studies program.
After graduating in 2011, Pupu'a made his professional debut later that year in the San Francisco Opera production of Christopher Theofanidis's new work, Heart of a Soldier. Other notable roles have included Cavaradossi in Hawaii Opera Theatre's Tosca and Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos with Theatre der Stadt Heidelberg.
For Norma, it is the love triangle between his character of Pollione and that of the Druid priestesses Norma and Adalgisa that is Pupu'a focus now. "The role sits in the middle voice, with a lot of high notes," he explains. "But the real challenge is to stay focused, just like in football. … If you don't stay focused right from the whistle, you are going to get your head knocked off."
Operatically speaking, of course.
A life full of the twists of fortune apparently has its ironic rewards, at least it has for Pupu'a.
"I think what makes a wonderful opera singer is that when they have lived life, they know what pain is, they know what love is, they know what rejection is, and they can bring it to the role," he says.
"Lucia is my baby," exclaims soprano Rochelle Bard, referring to the title role in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, a role she has sung on three occasions and obviously adores. But, still relatively early in her career, Bard is in Knoxville for her debut in another equally demanding example of bel canto, Bellini's Norma.
"Norma is a huge undertaking," Bard says. "It's a real challenge to play this role, because she has this beautiful aria ["Casta diva"] with high notes everywhere. Then she's super-angry, and she's like Tosca for a while. It's gritty—and low—and high. And she comes in with all these painful, soft high notes. It's a really difficult role, but I love it. It feels like it was really meant for me."
Like Pupu'a, Bard didn't start out a singer. Although she had been a pianist all her life, she took a pre-med degree from Holy Cross in her hometown of Worcester, Mass.
"I was ready to apply to med schools," she says. "But I was tired and needed a year off, so I started teaching biology for a year, and hated it. … I thought if I was going to teach, maybe it should be music."
A voice teacher at the University of North Carolina in Wilmington had different ideas and convinced her that she was, in fact, a singer.
With a music career now firmly in her sights, Bard entered the New England Conservatory graduate program in 2001 and became a voice student of the late Edward Zambara. Coincidentally, Zambara had been on the voice faculty of the University of Tennessee School of Music until 1981, and was the founding artistic director of the Knoxville Civic Opera, which later became Knoxville Opera.
"Mr. Zambara recognized immediately that my voice was suited for the bel canto repertoire," Bard says. "He set me on this path, working on Bellini and Donizetti with me, and I believe he would be so proud. I am honored to sing this monumental role at the opera company he founded."
Since leaving NEC in 2003, Bard has gravitated to a number of coloratura roles for opera companies around the United States, including Lucia in Lucia di Lammermoor, Violetta in La Traviata, and Gilda in Rigoletto for Opera San Jose, and Lucia and the Olympia/Antonia/Guiletta roles in Les Contes d'Hoffmann for West Bay Opera in Palo Alto, Calif. But Norma may be her most demanding undertaking yet.
"This role is just as high as Lucia," she says. "I'm singing a high E-flat at the end of the duet with Pollione. It's as high as Lucia and much, much lower, which is why it is more difficult. … It's so much like Lucia, its no coincidence that the same kind of people sang the roles through history. Norma came a little later in their careers. It's a stamina issue, too. It's one of the longest roles for dramatic sopranos, and I'm really excited to be one of those."