When Nelson Ebo ’12 performed his first solo opera recital in New Hampshire this past March, you would never know from listening to his powerful tenor voice and seemingly effortless delivery how difficult his journey was to that stage. The 24-year-old earned
the recital by winning the prestigious Lakes Region Opera Idol competition in New Hampshire in November 2008.
Ebo and his 14 brothers and sisters grew up in the Republic of Angola in south-central Africa during the Angolan Civil War (1975–2002), which took the lives of some 500,000 people. When he was 13 years old, his family moved into a seminary
to try to escape the violence. That’s where he discovered opera, thanks to music CDs belonging to the priests.
Ebo listened to famous tenors Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo, writing out the words phonetically because he did not speak Italian. After listening to the music just a few times, he was surprised to discover he could sing along with the opera legends.
“When I was in my room and I tried to sing opera, my family thought I was crazy,” Ebo says with a laugh.“They had never heard that kind of voice.”
Ebo fondly recalls those moments when his family was together. By the time he was 17, he had lost his mother and nine of his siblings to violence or disease. Two sisters and a brother died of tuberculosis with Ebo by their sides. His father died when he was 21.
At first, opera became a refuge from the hardships of life. But soon Ebo realized singing was a way to help his family. Already working as a fisherman for food, he began singing at a restaurant to earn more money.
One night, Alfonso Barragues, a United Nations human rights officer, visited the restaurant and heard Ebo sing. Barragues, an opera fan, sensed there was something special about the young tenor
Nelson Ebo (left) rehearses with Hartt Professor Wayne rivera (in mirror) before his recital in New Hampshire.
and invited him to listen to an opera recording. Barragues was amazed when Ebo sang along the second time he heard it.
“His voice was definitely more captivating than the tenor’s
on the recording,” says Barragues.“In that very moment, I realized I was in front of a natural prodigy.”
Barragues helped Ebo secure a scholarship to Carlos III University in Madrid, Spain. At the age of 16, he made the difficult decision to leave Angola and his family to study opera. While in Madrid, Ebo was invited to sing for the king of Spain and one of his idols, Plácido Domingo.
“He was a very nice guy, very good to me,” Ebo says simply of Domingo.“He liked my voice.”
Ebo stayed in Spain for eight years, eventually deciding to come to the United States to study. While he was spending some time in New Jersey, a friend suggested Ebo audition at The Hartt School. He traveled to Hartford and sang for Wayne Rivera, Hartt’s chair of opera performance.
“The first thing you are impressed with is his amazing voice,” says Rivera.“That is coupled with a musical soul. Nelson is a person who is able to put a lot of the hurt he’s experienced in life into
Ebo enrolled in Hartt’s vocal studies program in fall 2008 with the goal of becoming a famous opera singer. Add to that the fact that his surviving siblings are depending on him for support since none of them has steady employment. It is a lot of pressure, but Ebo says opera helps him get through the difficult times.
“I’m a very happy person,” he explains with a smile.“I don’t like to feel sad because I lost a lot of people. I try to get my mind off it and try laughing and singing. That helps me a lot.”
Nelson Ebo was born in war, lived in hiding
Jane Cormier knew Nelson Ebo was special almost as soon as he opened his mouth. After spending much of his life in hiding, the young Angolan had recently arrived in the United States and found his way to Cormier’s opera competition in Concord.
‘He had to sing for less than 10 seconds when I knew this was not a common voice,’ said Cormier, founder and director of the Lakes Region Opera Company. ‘The color of his voice, the shine of it – very special. In 30 years of singing and teaching opera, I’d never heard that.’
The other judges of last October’s ‘Capital Region Opera Idol’ agreed, choosing Ebo over 64 other singers from across the country. He also won the $1,000 Audience Choice Award ‘hands down,’ according to Cormier.
‘We had some really good voices, but no one came close to him,’ she said.
As part of his prize package, Ebo returns to Concord tomorrow night for a vocal recital at the Concord City Auditorium.
‘I’m very happy, very excited,’ Ebo, 24, said in a telephone interview from the Hartt School of Music in Hartford, Conn., where he’s studying vocal performance on scholarship. It’s an improbable opportunity for a young man who grew up amid civil war in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Ebo was born during the 27-year war that seized the country shortly after it won its independence from Portugal. At 14, he was sent into hiding at a Franciscan seminary. Guerilla armies ‘were trying to get the children and send them to war,’ he explained.
At the seminary, Ebo discovered the music of great tenors such as Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti and began trying to sing like them. ‘I didn’t even know the songs . . . I didn’t even know which language I’m singing,’ Ebo said.
His natural talent was evident, though, and after a representative from the United Nations secured him passage to Spain, he began to
attract attention with his rich, passionate voice. While attending a university in Spain, he sang not only for one of his idols – Domingo – but for the king of Spain himself. Later, Domingo even gave him a couple of voice lessons. ‘That was a very good experience,’ he said.
Ebo’s matter-of-fact attitude belies a background that must surely bring him pain. His parents and nine of his siblings were killed by disease and war, and he has been unable to contact his surviving six siblings for some time. It is his singing voice – at turns bold and beseeching, trembling and triumphant – that hints at his story.
‘His background was so traumatic and violent. That must be hard to live with,’ Cormier said. ‘I think that’s going to be the only hurdle he’s going to have to climb.’
After just five months in the United States, though, Ebo seems to be adjusting well. He plays soccer, the one constant in his life since he was a child in Angola, and is perfecting his English.
‘I really love it. It’s an experience for me,’ Ebo said, who moved from Spain to Italy before finally gaining sponsorship to the United States. ‘I never had music lessons. This is my first time.’
The recital, which is sponsored by the All Saints Anglican Church, will showcase Ebo’s voice with relatively simple fare. ‘It’s a very light program,’ said Cormier, who will be performing a couple of duets with Ebo. ‘A lot of Spanish, some Italian, some favorite duets like ‘Libiamo’ from La Traviata. . . . Nothing too esoteric.’
She expects the crowd to be as wowed as she was. ‘I hope he has a full house because I’d love to have this kid have a big memory to take home,’ she said.
(Nelson Ebo’s concert takes place tomorrow night at 7:30 at the Concord City Auditorium. Tickets are $10 and can be purchased at Ballard’s Novelty and Party Shop and Gibson’s Bookstore. For more information, call 875-1917.)