Ta'u Pupu'a: Former NFL player conquers the world of opera

(CBS News) Making it big in any profession requires determination and talent. One man is doing that for a second time and performing in front of a new audience.

Opera tenor Ta'u Pupu'a has studied opera for three years at the notoriously-competitive arts conservatory Juilliard in Manhattan.

His Italian coach, Corradina Caporello, told CBS News' Jim Axlerod he saw "something so amazingly special" in the performer.

But if possible, Caporello is underselling, because Pupu'a has not only been special on one stage, but two.

He was 5 years old when his parents and eight siblings left the tiny Pacific island of Tonga for the rocky mountains of Utah.

"Being the first generation in America, we didn't have much, so the only way I can see into getting into college is through football," he said. "Who gives a full scholarship - room and board and all that? Not singing, football."

He earned a scholarship to Weber State, where he starred as a defensive tackle on the field and quietly pursued a degree in music off it.

However, one of his pursuits had to go when the Cleveland Browns took Pupu'a in the fifth round of the 1995 NFL draft. His choice was clear.

But, at 25 years old, after two foot injuries, his football career was over.

He told Axelrod that all his plans to make enough money to really take care of his family were suddenly "gone."

The good news was Pupu'a had a rather unique Plan B. He moved to New York City, not simply to pursue music, but to immerse himself in it.

"I found a job right across the street from the Metropolitan Opera," he said. "I was a host at a restaurant called O'Neal's Restaurant."

Pupu'a spent his shifts watching opera singers who came in, like Placido Domingo.

"I just remember just standing there looking at him and watched, what he drank, what he would eat, if he had a salad, what kind of dressing was it? Did it give him phlegm? So - I wanted to know everything," he said.

Pupu'a honed his powerful tenor and started picking up Italian, something he didn't learn on the football field.

"When you're a football player and you've got all that ... 'grrr'- that's too much for the stage," said Evelyn Reynolds, his voice teacher. "He needed that technique and he began to accept that fact."

After six years of learning that technique, he applied to Juilliard.

"One day I got a call that said 'Congratulations, you're one of three who got in,'" he said. "It was just one of those moments that I said to myself 'You know, I'm so glad I listened to that small voice.'"

There is nothing small about his voice and since graduating in 2011, he's performed from Copenhagen to Honolulu.

But, as you might expect from a guy who's already been there, he knows about pacing yourself when it comes to the big time.

He told Axelrod that if approached, he wouldn't take a job at the Met.

"I know I could deliver the goods but I don't want to deliver the goods. I want to deliver something great, not good," he said.

Pupu'a has been approached by the Met for an audition, which he passed on. He thinks he needs about two more years of polishing before he's ready for, as he calls it, the Super Bowl of opera.


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