Friday, January 23, 2009
This weekend, I watched a play end in tragedy.
In fact, I saw a few plays that would have some diehards trying to hold back tears. My hometown Philadelphia Eagles lost the chance to go to the Super Bowl. Again. While certainly not as tragic as the plots of Shakespeare's Othello or Puccini's Madama Butterfly, there is something quite similar between sports and the performing arts. The drama, the emotional connection to the players, the standing ovations, the awe as the voice or football climbs, descends, and lands in the cradle of the music or the receiver's hands.
For former Baltimore Ravens player and current lyric tenor Ta’u Pupu’a, the connection between football and opera is immediate. “They’re really similar,” he tells me in phone interview. “In order to be a really good singer, you have to be an athlete. The way one breathes, the positions of standing, how the air flows in and out of the body. When you sing, you have to sing with your body. Being an athlete I was able to call upon my experience of playing football…Once I got into music, I knew exactly what to do, how to study, how to prepare myself. You prepare the role you’re going to sing before you tackle it.”
However, Pupu'a, whose favorite opera is Tosca, wasn't always a lover of the genre. In fact, he says, "opera didn't come into my life until two and half years ago." Born on the small Polynesian island of Tonga, Pupu'a had a passion for football (Dallas Cowboys, Pittsburgh Steelers, Washington Redskins) and music (R&B, rock). As the youngest of nine, his preferences were shaped by his brothers and sisters who listened to Kiss and Abba. His first introduction to classical music was in the church where his father was a preacher.
At an early age, Pupu'a moved to Salt Lake City, Utah and later attended Weber State University in Ogden. It was here that he was able to pursue a Bachelor of Music degree while on a football scholarship. The scholarship necessitated that football take center stage and Pupu'a kept his singing a secret from the other players. But when word got out about one of his performances, his fellow teammates attended and showed their support with a standing ovation.
It wasn’t only his voice that was showstopper. Pupu’a impressed Coach Bill Belichick (then with the Cleveland Browns) with his speed and strength. According to Pupu’a “Bill is known to pick underdogs…He’s a wonderful guy who takes care of his draft choices.” After stints with the Browns and the Baltimore Ravens, an injury made Pupu’a reconsider his career. He arrived in New York four years ago searching for a vocal teacher. When one took him in, “all of sudden,” Pupu’a says, “it just came. It was my calling.”
"Born to travel," Pupu'a now tours the country perfecting his craft. His recent roles include the Duke of Mantua in Rigoletto for the Gateway Classical Music Society in Riverside, Connecticut; Cassio in Otello for Espresso Opera in New York City; and Maurizio in Adriania Lecouvreur for Opera in the Heights in Houston, Texas.
Now three years after his major role debut, what does Pupu'a think are the trends in opera? Movie theaters. He thinks organizations like the Metropolitan Opera that simulcast their performances at movie theaters across the country are "wonderful." Opening up price and geographic barriers, these presentations are "great because you pay 25 bucks, you have the front row, and you can sit there with your bag of popcorn." Does it get any better than friends, beautiful singers as tall as your house, and Milk Duds? (Want to experience the Met in your backyard? Theaters in Fairfax Town Center and Tysons Corner show live performances with one coming up Feb. 7).
This season will clearly be much brighter for Pupu’a than my Eagles. Falstaff at Julliard (he was accepted on a full scholarship), traveling to Italy for a month-long music festival in Tuscany, and performing at the prestigious Chautauqua Music Festival of Fine and Performing Arts in New York.
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