Honolulu — "The Blind Side" meets "The Great Caruso."
In the spring of 2007, Kiri Te Kanawa, the Maori-descended diva from New Zealand, had been churning out autographs in the Met Opera Shop at Lincoln Center for more than an hour when a slip of paper was placed before her bearing a name she recognized as Polynesian. She looked up and beheld Ta'u Pupu'a (TAH-ooh Pu-PU-ah), a towering 6-foot-5, from the microscopic island kingdom of Tonga, and briefly a defensive end in the N.F.L. until a broken arch put him out of the game. Remembering his successes as a soloist in the high school choir, he was now pursuing a career in opera.
"Do you live here?" Ms. Te Kanawa began.
"Yes," Mr. Pupu'a replied.
"What do you do?
"I'm a tenor."
"How is it going?"
"It's hard," Mr. Pupu'a admitted.
On the bright side, he had lately landed leading roles like Cavaradossi ("Tosca"), the Duke of Mantua ("Rigoletto"), Pinkerton ("Madama Butterfly") and Don José ("Carmen"), but with neighborhood companies called Regina and Espresso, steppingstones to more of the same. (Between gigs, he worked as a maître d' across Broadway from Lincoln Center, seating Beverly Sills and Plácido Domingo.)
Ms. Te Kanawa wanted to hear Mr. Pupu'a sing. "If you don't have what it takes, I won't waste your time or my money," she told him. "If you do, I'll help you."
She was leaving New York the next day for several months, but as soon as she got back, she marched Mr. Pupu'a to the Juilliard School to sing for Brian Zeger, the artistic director of the department of vocal arts. According to Mr. Pupu'a, it would have been the first time she heard him. Ms. Te Kanawa remembers otherwise.
"You can't present a singer without hearing him first," she said in a phone interview from Vienna. "But you do have to trust your instincts."
Mr. Zeger recognized the raw talent and the limitations.
"There was lots of voltage and excitement to the voice," he said recently. "It wasn't superheavy. Ta'u was very frank. He had been singing by the seat of his pants. His voice was way ahead of his skills."
After competitive auditions before the Juilliard voice faculty, Mr. Pupu'a won a full scholarship. He spent three years at the school playing intense catch-up on ear training, harmony, languages. In 2011, he made his professional debut with the San Francisco Opera in assorted cameos in the new "Heart of a Soldier," by Christopher Theofanidis, having been spotted by the director Francesca Zambello in a master class.
"His sound, his presence and his size impressed me immediately," Ms. Zambello said from Washington. "He had an amazing childlike quality, wide-eyed and willing. It was infectious. In 'Heart of a Soldier,' he was fantastic."
But by unwritten rules of the stage, a colossus like Mr. Pupu'a will stand or fall in starring roles commensurate with his stature. Tosca's Byronic lover, Cavaradossi, is such a role. Having sung the opera pre-Juilliard in a Brooklyn church, Mr. Pupu'a, now 37, revisited it this spring at Hawaii Opera Theater in Honolulu, opposite Jill Gardner as the Roman diva.
On opening night, Mr. Pupu'a's voice rang out thrillingly in Cavaradossi's cries of victory over tyranny then scaled back to plangent tenderness in his reminiscence of a never-to-be-repeated night of love. Friends and family from Tonga were out in force, and after the show they flocked to the green room, where they conversed in their melodious native tongue.
In Waikiki the next morning, Mr. Pupu'a spoke of vocality as a reflection of one's roots.
"When it's time to get dramatic," he said, "there's something I pull from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. A warm sound. A creamy sound. An intimate sound."
The youngest of nine children, Mr. Pupu'a was born on Tongatapu, the coral-limestone speck Tongans call "the mainland." (Tonga's total land mass measures 288 square miles, slightly smaller than the five boroughs of New York.) Story has it that a great-grandmother was the songstress of an even tinier speck of an island and that no festivity was complete without her rendition of "Oh! Susanna."
Mr. Pupu'a's family were farmers, desperately poor. "Sometimes, there was no electricity or hot water," Mr. Pupu'a said. "When I was 5, we moved to Salt Lake City. My parents were looking for a better dream."
Mr. Pupu'a's father scraped by on odd jobs; his mother kept house. Older siblings lied about their age to get work, so at least the younger ones could get a proper education.
Mr. Pupu'a got his introduction to opera from records a brother brought home from college. "Why do you play ugly music?," he asked. "I can't understand a word. It has no beat."
His passion for classical music was sparked when a choir teacher gave him an Italian solo to sing. "I took it all the way to state finals," Mr. Pupu'a said. "I live on challenges. I strive."
Fast-forward to 2010, his final year at Juilliard, when James Levine cast him in the short but treacherous role of Bacchus in Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos" at the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts, a bridge from the conservatory to a professional career. Christoph von Dohnanyi, who stepped in to conduct when illness forced Mr. Levine to drop out, reportedly gave Mr. Pupu'a high marks.
So, with minor reservations, did The New York Times. "He seems to have limitless power, so far not entirely tamed," James R. Oestreich wrote. "But the voice has real gold in its best moments, with none of the blowsiness we have had to settle for in so many recent 'heldentenors.' " Last year Mr. Pupu'a made his European debut in Heidelberg, Germany, in the same role.
Now what? In March he made his debut with Opera Santa Barbara in California as Radames, captain of the Egyptian guard in Verdi's "Aida," loyal to a fault. Knoxville Opera in Tennessee has him scheduled as Pollione, the two-timing Roman general in Bellini's "Norma," in April 2014.
Beyond that, who knows? A herculean push to the Hunger Games at the top international houses? A long run at less Darwinian institutions, where standards are still high but the scrutiny is less intense?
Michael Chioldi, riveting in Honolulu as Tosca's Machiavellian nemesis, Baron Scarpia, has had ample time to evaluate contrasting career strategies.
"I'm the son of a steelworker," Mr. Chioldi said backstage. "I grew up with nothing. I've been singing opera professionally for 25 years. So far it's been some supporting roles in the top houses but lots of leads in the middle. I have my family, my partner and time to spend with them. Not to mention my apartment in New York and 40 or so timepieces. I'm in discussion with top houses now about some exciting projects, but if they don't pan out, I won't cry. It's a great life in the middle."
Mr. Pupu'a seems similarly immune to the more toxic strains of ambition.
"When I got drafted, suddenly I had money," he said of his entry into the N.F.L. "I loved it that I could help my family. As Kiri says, sometimes all of us need a little push, and then we can stand on our own.
"What am I looking for now? I want to make a living. I'd like to start by knowing myself and my voice and how it functions, so that we're best friends, so that it's always there, and there's no fear, and we become one.
"What houses would I like to sing in? Is it arrogant to say 'I'd like to sing in them all, big to small'? I want to share. Music to me is life, it's love, my soul speaking to your soul or to all those souls sitting out there, whether it's hundreds or millions."