Portrait of a young singer on the cusp of stardom

WEST HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — This is the world Nelson Hebo was born into: a world of poverty and violence and disease, where soldiers dragged young men from streets at rifle-point, where gunfire shattered the night, where he was lucky to eat one meal a day.

Older brothers disappeared during the civil war. Other siblings died of tuberculosis, rampant in the streets of Angola’s capital city.

But the skinny kid with the big smile found a unique escape. Over and over the boy would play a tape of the Three Tenors — a gift from someone who had heard him sing in church. He would lose himself in the beauty of arias he couldn’t begin to understand.

“O Sole Mio.” “Nessun dorma.” “De’ miei bollenti spiriti.”

Nelson would scribble out the words phonetically. And then he would sing along, mimicking Luciano Pavarotti and Placido Domingo in the tiny adobe house he shared with his parents and siblings.

His family thought the boy — the second youngest of 15 — was mad. But everyone could hear the beauty in his voice. At Mass, worshippers would weep when Nelson sang “Ave Maria.”

The boy grew into a handsome young man with a magnetic personality. Now 26, his voice still makes listeners weep. But his world has utterly changed.

Nelson’s journey has been an odyssey as dramatic and surreal as any opera, sweeping him from the war-ravaged streets of Luanda to the universities and opera houses of Europe and America.

And yet, in a sense, it is a journey that is just beginning.

———

On Sept. 21, 2000, his 16th birthday, Nelson Hebo met the man who would change his life forever.

At the time, Nelson was his family’s main breadwinner, singing in churches and small clubs, using his paltry earnings to pay for food and medicine. That is where Alfonso Barragues stumbled upon him, as the 32-year-old Spaniard, a human rights officer with the United Nations, was relaxing in a music hall with friends.

At first Barragues, a lifelong opera lover, didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the scrawny kid in an oversized white suit butchering the songs he loved. And yet he was moved to invite Nelson to his house in the UN compound a few days later.

In the living room Barragues played a tape of Pavoratti singing “Una furtiva lagrima” from the opera “L’elisir d’amore.”

“Oh that is very beautiful,” Nelson said. He hummed some notes, and then, to Barragues’ astonishment, he began to sing — clear and pure and pitch-perfect.

“That is when I knew I had to help this boy,” Barragues says. “I didn’t know how, or where it would take me. But I knew I had to try.”

Barragues drove Nelson all over the city, introducing him to opera-loving friends and diplomats. The reaction was always the same: spellbound shock at such a powerful voice exploding from such a small frame.

Barragues’ friends urged caution. Nelson is a simple boy, they said. What are you thinking, filling his head with dreams?

Barragues worried, too. But increasingly he grew more certain. There was something special about Nelson, more than his voice — a warm, engaging energy mixed with a kind of spiritual joy and wisdom that seemed far greater than his years.

He would do whatever it took to help him.

———

The day Nelson left Angola was one of the saddest of his life. His elderly parents clung to him, as if they knew they were hugging him for the last time.

It was June 2001. A few days earlier Barragues had called excitedly from Madrid. He had managed to secure two auditions for Nelson, one with the Royal Conservatory of Music and the other with Carlos III University of Madrid. Singers from all over the world would be vying for the spots.

Barragues barely recognized the emaciated figure who stepped off the plane. Sick with early stage tuberculosis, Nelson’s face was gaunt, his head bald.

Barragues’ heart sank. The auditions were in a week. How could Nelson possibly sing in this condition?

Nelson knew how. He thought of his parents, of the sisters who were sick and the brother who had coughed up blood before dying in front of him. He thought of all the other young men in Angola who could only dream of such an opportunity.

He sang with such passion the judges cheered.

And so began what Nelson calls the “crazy time” of his life — an immersion in a country and culture and way of life so different from the one he had left that there were times he wondered if it was all a dream.

There was early inspiration. Placido Domingo happened to be performing in Madrid at the time. Friends of Barragues arranged an introduction. Trembling, the young tenor sang “Una furtiva lagrima” — as his hero accompanied him on piano.

“You have a beautiful voice,” Domingo told him. “You need to study hard to develop it.”

In Angola, Nelson had belted out songs with abandon. In Spain, he would learn to pace his voice, not push it. He would learn the language of opera: bel canto, tessitura, passagio.

Nelson has an easy-going nature and an infectious sense of joy. He made friends on the soccer field, in coffee shops and dance clubs. He charmed the public relations people at the Teatro Royal into slipping him opera tickets whenever they had a free seat. He sang for the king.

When Barragues returned to Madrid a year later for the annual university concert, he could hardly believe the poised young man who strode on stage in a tuxedo as the audience chanted “Nelson! Nelson!”

———

Barragues broke the news over the phone: Nelson’s mother, who had done so much to shield her youngest son from the war, at one point sending him to a seminary for safety, had died. Nelson ached with homesickness and uncertainty. He was tortured by nightmares about those who had died and those he had left behind.

People wonder all the time: Is that why he sings with such feeling, such pathos? Do the sorrows of his life inspire the crying in his voice?

“Of course, if I am singing about death, I think about my family, the ones who died,” Nelson says. “But usually I just feel the song, whether it’s happy or sad. And when I feel it, the voice just flows.”

“Once in a while you come across THAT voice, THAT talent, that honest-to-goodness great natural sound,”“ said Julian Rodescu, a 58-year-old bass, a professional opera singer who lives in Philadelphia and now spends more time teaching than singing.

Rodescu, who first heard Nelson sing in Genoa in 2004, quickly became a mentor, friend and vocal coach. He arranged for Nelson to audition at the prestigious Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia in 2005. But Nelson was sick with a cold and he performed poorly. For a time he studied in Westminster Choir College in Princeton, N.J., but his visa ran out and he was forced to return to Spain.

There followed a couple of frustrating and aimless years when Nelson questioned everything about himself. Failing to get into the Academy of Vocal Arts had deeply shaken his confidence. Maybe his voice was not as good as everyone said. Maybe he should forget trying to becoming an opera star and just start singing jazz.

Friends told him how lucky he was, reminding him of all he had escaped, and all he had achieved. His years in Spain had transformed him into a sophisticated, educated, polished young man who had traveled all over Europe, who was fluent in five languages, whose voice was growing richer all the time.

But Nelson didn’t feel lucky. “I felt lost,” he says.

Nelson grew up in a deeply religious home. He has an abiding faith that God has blessed him with his talent, and that if he takes care of it, God will take care of him. And so, when he received a call from some American opera friends, whom he had met through Rodescu, he was sure God had rescued him.

They had arranged an audition with the Hartt School of Music at the University of Hartford in Connecticut. Suddenly Nelson’s dream was alive again.

———

Classes, rehearsals, competitions, performances — thrilled to be studying again, Nelson hurled himself into his hectic new life, winning friends and admirers at every turn.

In Connecticut, Nelson expanded his repertoire, working on his technique and stamina. He racked up accolades in recitals, winning competitions and attending master classes, where opera stars work with young singers on improving skills.

One of his first was with legendary American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne. International vocal coach Herbert Burtis was in the audience, and later he wrote of how “a 25-year-old tenor from Angola came on stage and blew us all away with his rendition of Tosti’s ‘Mattinata. ... It was a magnificent performance.”

At times Nelson seems genuinely astonished, humbled even, by the praise and attention.

“It is because the songs are so beautiful,” he says. “If you sing them properly people connect, you make them feel something very special.”

At a recent concert in South Windsor, Conn., Nelson sang 11 compositions with such melting perfection — beginning with Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” and ending with Tosti’s “Aprile” — that the audience simply erupted in ecstasy. People just wanted to touch him.

“You filled me with love,” one woman said. “I felt transported. God bless you.”

———

The opera world is forever searching for the next Pavarotti, every now and then anointing some dazzling new tenor only to witness him torn in too many directions, pushed so hard he self-destructs.

But those who know Nelson have great hope. He has just gained admission to the Academy of Vocal Arts, the school that rejected him six years ago, the school that has launched numerous stars. As a finalist in the prestigious Gerda Lissner Foundation’s international vocal competition, he triumphed in a recent concert in Carnegie Hall.

The expectations are huge, and so is the burden.

Sometimes Nelson finds himself wondering if it is all real, this amazing life he has been given. He wakes up every day wondering if his voice will still be there. And, before every performance, he becomes convinced that when he opens his mouth the notes won’t come.

At a winter concert in Lambertville, N.J. — a glittering event featuring renowned tenor Marcello Giordani — other young singers mingled backstage, warming up, joking. Nelson crouched behind a marble pillar, cradling his head in his hands.

“My voice is no good,” he moaned. “I have a cough. I can’t do it ...”

An hour later, after stirring renditions of Verdi and Donizetti classics, Giordani announced that the audience was in for a special treat.

Just days before, during a master class in New York, he had heard a voice so impressive, so rare, that he had invited the young singer to join them.

“He is very special,” Giordani said. “And he is very, very scared.”

Nelson bowed graciously. Then he began to sing — “Ah, la paterna mano,” from Verdi’s “Macbeth.” The famous aria portrays the agony of a man who has just learned his family has been murdered.

Nelson clutched his chest, his face wracked with grief. His pure lyric voice soared through the church.

The ovation was thunderous; the audience was on its feet. Some had tears in their eyes. “Bravo!” they cried. “Bravi!”

Nelson beamed.

“Thank you so much”, he said, as people clustered around, begging him to sign programs, praising his talent. Where, they asked, had he learned such passion?

“The voice, that comes from God,” he told them. “I come from Angola.”

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