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Portrait of a young singer on the cusp of stardom

By Helen O'neill

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, May 28 2011 2:50 p.m. MDT

In this Monday, May 23, 2011 photo, Jane Cormier, center, and her son Christopher Martinez, 10, join Angolan tenor Nelson Hebo at a reception in New York following his performance at Carnegie Hall for the winners of the 2011 Gerda Lissner Foundation International Vocal Competition. Nelson met Cormier in 2008 when he preformed in her opera company in Alton, N.H., and now calls her family in New Hampshire his "adopted" family. Nelson rarely talks about Angola, or the many family members who have died, including his parents, confiding in just a few people - a priest, and Cormier's family of opera singers who have embraced Nelson as one of their own.

Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press

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."

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