Portrait of a young singer on the cusp of stardom

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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.

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