Pene Pati remembers his teachers at university telling him: "Don't be ashamed if you don't make it because a lot of Pacific singers won't." In fact, they added, no one from Samoa had ever become an opera star.

Pati's reaction? "Well, I'll be the first and I'll prove you wrong."

Now, at 34, he has released his first album on Warner Classics, and is about to star in Rossini's "Moise et Pharaon" at the prestigious Aix-en-Provence festival, after already wowing audiences from Bordeaux to San Francisco.

There is one comparison that keeps coming up -- and not just because of his commanding physical presence.

"Nearly every critic I've had at every single opera has said the same thing: 'You truly do sound like Pavarotti'," he told AFP with a laugh.

The comparison is well-earned, since Pati spent hours watching Luciano Pavarotti -- one of the legendary Three Tenors and widely regarded as one of the greatest singers of the 20th century -- trying to figure out his secrets.

"I couldn't afford singing lessons so I ended up teaching myself on YouTube," he said.

"They were the only people I knew. I would watch videos of Pavarotti and zoom in on his face and try to figure out what he was doing and how he could make it look so easy."

Pati was born on the Samoan archipelago but grew up in Auckland, New Zealand.

He credits a smart initiative by his teachers for discovering his voice: they only allowed boys to play rugby if they also joined the choir -- to make sure singing was embraced by sporty kids.

"The experiment worked. The boys playing rugby loved being in the choir," Pati said.

Pene Pati credits his schoolteachers who forced rugby players to also join the choir
Pene Pati credits his schoolteachers who forced rugby players to also join the choir AFP / Nicolas TUCAT

It was at university in Auckland that his teachers tried to keep his ambitions in check.

"They weren't being mean. They were being realistic because, in fairness, no one had done it before me except Kiri Te Kanawa," the great New Zealand soprano, he said.

But Pati started winning international prizes and set up a trio with his younger brother Amitai, a tenor who is also making a name for himself, and the Samoan baritone Moses Mackay. Their debut album was New Zealand's best-selling in 2014 and 2015.

Pati went to study in Cardiff and San Francisco, before being spotted in 2017 by Marc Minkowski, director of the Bordeaux Opera.

Minkowski told him he had a rare voice -- light and lyrical -- "a true bel canto that no one really does anymore".

Pati has since worked across Europe and plans to settle in Barcelona with his wife, the Egyptian-born soprano Amina Edris.

But he keeps his homeland firmly in mind.

"Samoan culture is truly embedded in music. It's in our DNA. We sing our myths and legends and stories onto the next person. We have had an operatic life and we did not even know it," he said.

His dream is to open a singing school there.

"When I started there was no one and my goal was to try to bring in as many people as possible, and now there are a lot of young Samoan opera singers coming through.

"The plan is to go back, teach these singers and hopefully their generation will achieve far more than I can."