by Grant Moser
“She has a rare sound, a very full voice,” said Ralph Tudisco, owner of the East Oak Lane-based Amici Opera Company, about 26-year-old mezzo-soprano Pauline Taumalolo. That’s why he gave her a role on the spot after just one audition for his upcoming production of “La Fiamma” (the flame), by Ottorino Respighi, at Redeemer United Methodist Church, 1128 Cottman Ave. in Northeast Philadelphia’s Burholme section.
The North Philadelphia resident, who was raised in Hawaii, knew from a young age that she wanted to be an opera singer. Watching operas on television in Hawaii, she found herself amazed at how well the performers could sing. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow!’ This is not something you can just pick up, you’re either born with the ability, or you’re not,” she explained.
What Pauline loves most about opera, not surprisingly, are the voices of the performers; their strong voices that sound like a whole chorus coming from one person without a microphone. The experience only gets richer for her with the music of a full live orchestra.
As she has learned herself over the past eight years, part of the allure is also the struggles the performers have gone through just to be on that stage. “All the training, all the time, all the money from your own pockets just to stand there. Then you’re there, and you can’t fake it; you either hit the notes, or you don’t. It’s the real, live experience of someone putting herself out there.”
Luckily for Taumalolo, she was born with the ability to sing. Part of it might be genetics, as her uncle (Ta’u Pupua) is an opera singer who recently graduated from world-renowned Juilliard School of Music in New York and is playing in major houses around the world. Part of it was also her dedication.
At age 18, she asked her uncle what she needed to do to become a world-class opera singer. His answer was simple: get a voice coach. She began taking lessons in the spring of 2006 and entered several voice competitions (she didn’t place) and auditioned for the Hawaii Opera’s Young Artists program. (She was accepted.)
After one year of classes and voice instruction, Pauline placed first in the competitions she entered and became a studio member of the Hawaii Opera. This gave her a full scholarship that included coaching, private lessons, master classes and opportunities to travel to New York to learn more. In 2010 she performed her first real role with the Hawaii Opera as Grimgerde, one of the valkyries in “Die Walkure” by Richard Wagner.
That same year she was hand-picked to be one of 250 opera students from around the world to attend and learn at The Bayreuth Festival in Germany, which celebrates the music of Wagner. She remembers the attention she received because of her skin color. “My parents (Sili and Maata Taumalolo) are from Tonga, and I stuck out like a sore thumb there. However, it also got me noticed because everyone wanted to know my story. I was interviewed a lot, and I got to go backstage and meet a lot of performers. It was an amazing experience.” (Pauline also has had the privilege of singing for the King of Tonga on several occasions.)
This whirlwind of opportunities also gave Taumalolo the push she needed to move to Philadelphia. She realized that she was isolated on Hawaii after seeing and hearing opera singers in Europe and New York.
“It was a whole other ballgame,” she said. “I could see a difference in the level of everything. I was so determined, I wanted to get into it because this was what I wanted to do with my life.”
But why live in Philly as opposed to New York, the U.S. mecca for opera singers? “I love New York,” she explained, “and obviously want to perform there, but I want to grow more as a singer first. Also, Philly is close to New York, so I can drive there (for auditions and performances), and Philly provides opportunities for me here. And, of course, New York is just too darn expensive!”
Pauline is auditioning constantly and just finished a production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” at the New York Lyric Opera. This month she will be reprising her role in “Die Walkure” for the company. In September she’ll be appearing in the Amici Opera production of “La Fiamma.” As she described it, “I’m throwing myself out there to see what happens. There is nothing too small or big for me to do.”
However, the life of an aspiring opera singer isn’t all glamour. She holds down two part-time jobs to pay the rent and fund her lessons. When she does land a part, it is her responsibility to learn the opera and train on her own. Most times, that means learning songs in a foreign language. It isn’t until near the show dates that the company is brought together to rehearse and get stage directions.
Because her voice is her instrument, Pauline practices every night. She even sings during her part-time jobs, always speaking with her diaphragm, practicing scales, even singing out customers’ orders at Starbucks. Life on the mainland has proved hard and not as lucrative as she was accustomed to in Hawaii. “It can be very discouraging, but you have to put yourself out there. Sometimes you go through 50 ‘no’s’ before you get that one great opportunity. You have to pick yourself up and keep moving until you find that one break,” she said.
“I had a moment where I wondered why I had left Hawaii because it was going so well for me there. Thousands of people are shooting for what I want here. Coming here was to play with the sharks. This is where I belong, and I’m just swimming and finding my way around.”
Taumalolo can be seen in the Amici Opera Company production of “La Fiamma” at the Redeemer United Methodist Church in Northeast Philadelphia on Sept. 15 and 21. More information at 215-224-0257.