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Portrait of a young singer on the cusp of stardom
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.
By John R. Bolton
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