WEST HARTFORD, Conn. – In his tiny dorm room, Nelson Hebo keeps an envelope containing a few tattered photographs of his family. His mother, Maria, gazes distantly from a black-and-white passport photo. His father, Francisco, stands on a patch of dirt outside their house in Angola clutching his young nephew, Fabio, and holding a Bible. Scribbled on the back, in Portuguese, are the words, "remember your father."
Nelson turns away. He cannot hide the sadness in his eyes.
"It is very hard to look at them," he says quietly.
These are reminders of the world Nelson Hebo was born into: a world of poverty and violence and disease, where soldiers dragged young men from dusty streets at rifle-point, where gunfire shattered the night, where the only meal of the day might be a bowl of rice steeped in sugar washed down with "coffee" brewed from burnt beans.
Older brothers disappeared during the civil war. Other siblings died of tuberculosis, rampant in the filthy, run-down streets of the 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 and languages he couldn't even 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, the raggedy kid 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, or possessed by the devil. But everyone could hear the beauty in his voice. At Mass, worshippers would weep when Nelson sang "Ave Maria." They would hug him and call him an angel.
The boy grew into a handsome young man with a wide smile, a hearty laugh and 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. It has swept him from the war-ravaged streets of Luanda to the universities and opera houses of Europe and America, transforming his life and many others along the way.
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 and 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 something about the boy moved him. He invited Nelson to his house in the UN compound a few days later.
In the living room, Nelson watched transfixed at televised scenes from "Turandot," the extravagant Puccini opera set in ancient Peking. Later, Barragues played a tape of Pavoratti singing "Una furtiva lagrima", the exquisite love song 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. It was as beautiful a rendition of the Donizetti classic as Barragues had ever heard.
Oh my God, Barragues thought. I'm in the presence of a prodigy.
"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, international diplomats and Angola's wealthy elite. 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. He has barely any education. What are you thinking, filling his head with dreams? Don't play God with this boy.
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. It was as if the young singer felt a responsibility to share his gift, to make everyone happy.
For his part, Nelson was grateful beyond words for the interest of his new friend, who gave him tapes of opera music, who treated him to dinner, who came to meet his parents.
At Barragues' birthday in January 2001, friends gathered at a casual outdoor restaurant for hot dogs and avocado shakes. Nelson watched as they gave him small gifts, ashamed that he had come empty-handed.
Suddenly he began to sing — "Recondita armonia" from "Tosca." Pouring his heart into the powerful Puccini aria, his voice soared into the night. The crowd fell silent. Even the waiters stopped serving.
Says Barragues: "It was the most memorable birthday gift I had ever received."
The day Nelson left Angola was one of the saddest of his life. His elderly parents clung to him, tears streaming down their faces, 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, where he had spent several months on family leave. 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. They will be very difficult, Barragues told Nelson. Singers from all over the world would be vying for the spots.
Barragues barely recognized the emaciated figure who stepped off the plane. Nelson's face was gaunt, his head bald. He looked like an old man.
Doctors diagnosed him with early stage tuberculosis and said Nelson needed nourishment as much as medicine. He also needed dental surgery — some of his teeth were so rotten they bled.
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 were early missteps: Nelson wore a Real Madrid soccer T-shirt to his first opera, Rossini's "La Cenerentola" — clueless about how out of place he looked in the lavish elegance of the Teatro Royal.
But there was also inspiration. Placido Domingo happened to be performing in Madrid at the time, singing in Richard Wagner's "Die Walkure." 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."
And that is what Nelson did, soaking up the language and culture, losing himself in studies and song. People marveled at how quickly he adjusted. It was, said one Spanish friend, as if Nelson felt the need to grasp every opportunity in case his luck might somehow disappear.
In Angola, Nelson had always sung with abandon, belting out songs with all his might. In Spain, he would learn to pace his voice, not push it. He would learn to view his voice as a fragile and complex instrument that had to be cared for. He would learn the language of opera: bel canto, tessitura, passagio.
Nelson possesses an infectious sense of joy, along with an easy-going nature and winning smile that draws people to him. 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 persuaded the university president to get him a pass for Real Madrid soccer games. 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. There must have been a thousand people in the auditorium.
"Nelson! Nelson!" they chanted.
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 had to ask the president of the university for money to pay for her funeral.
He ached with homesickness and uncertainty. He was tortured by nightmares about the brothers and sisters who had died and those he had left behind.
"It was very hard," he says.
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."
And how it flows.
"Nelson started to sing and I practically fell off my chair," said Julian Rodescu, a 58-year-old bass, a professional opera singer who lives in Philadelphia and now spends more time teaching than singing. "Once in a while you come across THAT voice, THAT talent, that honest-to-goodness great natural sound."
Rodescu, who first heard Nelson sing in Genoa in 2004, quickly became a mentor, friend and vocal coach. It was Rodescu who 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, and his voice. Failing to get into the Academy of Vocal Arts had deeply shaken his confidence: It was the first time critics had not swooned over his singing. 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. They paid for his plane ticket. Suddenly Nelson's dream was alive again.
Classes, rehearsals, competitions, performances — thrilled to be studying again, Nelson hurled himself into his hectic new life with jubilation. And, as he had done in Spain, he won friends and admirers at every turn.
"Nelson, our rock star!" jokes his friend Joey Baker, as they stroll through campus, while a smiling Nelson hugs and high-fives every student who passes. A soprano begs him to come to her recital that weekend. A baritone asks if they can practice a duet.
Everyone, it seems, wants a piece of Nelson.
He gives willingly — tutoring a freshman mezzo-soprano on reaching her high notes, singing the spiritual "Give Me Jesus" as a favor for a friend in church, introducing friends to his "special place" a little homespun Brazilian restaurant where the cooks hail him in Portuguese as if he is a brother.
"Nelson has this huge talent, but he is also a really good person," says his voice teacher, Wayne Rivera. "And I think that humanity, the way he cares about people, comes out in his singing."
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 Marilyn Horne, the legendary American mezzo-soprano famous for her mastery of demanding Rossini arias. International vocal coach Herbert Burtis was in the audience, and he was mesmerized.
"Then a 25-year-old tenor from Angola came on stage and blew us all away with his rendition of Tosti's 'Mattinata,'" Burtis wrote. "He was a little afraid of the high B Flat at first, but I could hear that that can be worked out with practice. ... 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."
And yet his eyes dance with delight when he knows he has a crowd in his thrall.
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."
Another clutched his arm, seemingly too overcome to speak.
It is not just opera lovers who feel this connection. After a winter concert in New York, Nelson was feted at a reception, showered with praise for his moving performance of the Spanish aria, "No puede ser."
It was getting late. All Nelson could think of was the three-hour bus journey back to Hartford, where he had to study for finals the next day. Politely extricating himself, he dashed through the darkened church where the concert had been held.
"Hey, Mister Angola!" a voice cried out. "Mister singer from Angola. You were amazing. Good luck in your career."
It was the maintenance man whom Nelson had befriended a few hours earlier when he was searching for a place to be alone to calm his frenzied nerves.
Nelson bowed and shook the man's hand.
"Thank you, my friend," he said.
Then the tenor raced out into the rain to catch his bus.
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, winning the kind of applause and accolades that young singers dream of.
The expectations are huge, and so is the burden.
For Nelson isn't just driven to succeed for himself and the surviving members of his family (his father also died while he was in Spain). He is also singing for his country.
"There are so many young men in Angola like me," he says. "I am just a tiny story. But I got a chance that so many others also deserve."
Nelson rarely talks about Angola, confiding in just a few people — a priest, a family of opera singers in New Hampshire who have embraced him as one of their own.
"I think about Angola all the time," he says. "But that was a crazy time, during the war. It makes me sad to talk about it, to think of my parents and the people who died."
He knows that, had they lived, his parents would have been immensely proud of their special son, the one with the beautiful voice, the one they once thought was mad. But they would have been bewildered, too.
Even Nelson catches 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. The bigger the performance, the bigger the struggle with nerves.
At a winter concert in Lambertville, N.J. — a glittering event sponsored by a countess and featuring renowned tenor Marcello Giordani — other young singers mingled backstage, warming up, joking, chewing mints. Nelson crouched behind a marble pillar, cradling his head in his hands, his brow glistening with sweat.
"My voice is no good," he moaned. "I have a cough. I'm freezing. I can't do it ..."
Giordani strode over, wrapped his winter coat around the shivering singer and patted him on the back. "Nerves are normal," the big man boomed. "Relax. You will be great."
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. There hadn't even been time to list him on the program.
"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 Hebo beamed with happiness and relief.
"Thank you so much", he said over and over, 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."