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Portrait of a young singer on the cusp of stardom

By HELEN O’NEILL, AP Special Correspondent

In this March 10, 2011 photo, tenor Nelson Hebo prepares to sing in a concert with prominent and rising opera stars at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in New York. 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. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) — AP

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.

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