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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.


Story Continues →