Making a debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City is the pinnacle of any opera singer’s career, but for Santa Clarita native Edward Nelson, the honor is greater than that — his debut means he also gets to be a part of making opera history.
Nelson will be debuting in “Champion,” a retelling of the story of Emile Griffith — a closeted Black boxer in the 1950s who went on to become world champion, killing his opponent in the process. The opera is written by Grammy-award-winning jazz artist Terence Blanchard.
Nelson plays the only unnamed character in the opera, “Man at the Bar,” who appears at different stages in Griffith’s story as the show’s only depiction of his “hidden gay life.”
The Met is most famous for productions of classical opera from composers such as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Gioachino Rossini. However, the Met has only recently decided to invest in modern compositions by living artists — making “Champion” a groundbreaking opera at the Met.
“This piece is part of this new initiative and this new era in the Met’s history,” said Nelson. “But also I think, because the Met is such a pinnacle for the entire world of opera, it’s a new era in opera, where we’re now moving forward… to a new age of living composers’ stories that reflect the lived experiences of our audiences today. Basically, this is a step. This is one of the first steps in that direction. And so I’m honored to be a part of it in that sense.”
The step in this direction comes as a relief to many who work in opera, according to Nelson, who said working in the industry can sometimes feel like “a modern person” working “in a live-action museum.”
Nelson repeatedly used the word “pinnacle” to describe his eventual debut. For any opera singer, a debut at the Met could require decades of training and several rounds of auditions. But for Nelson, he didn’t have to audition — the Met approached him, at 34 years old.
Nelson always loved to sing. His parents were very supportive of his artistic ambitions and encouraged him during his time at Saugus High School and Valencia High School, where he sang in the schools’ choirs. He said he loved music, but once he graduated from high school he didn’t necessarily have a direction he wanted to go in.
“I had a lot of musical interests, but I didn’t have any particular direction per se. So when it came to applying for colleges, I got a full ride scholarship to Cal State Long Beach and that was where I found opera,” said Nelson. “So I sort of discovered this thing that people thought I was good at, and they shepherded me toward that direction.”
It was a direction he never wavered from. Nelson eventually transferred from CSULB to the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music, where he earned his master’s degree. After graduating, he joined the Young Artist Program at the San Francisco Opera — doing freelance work through an agent.
His agent got him a spot on the Glyndebourne Opera Cup — an international competition for opera singers that was coincidently being filmed for an English TV show in the style of “X Factor” or “America’s Got Talent.” Nelson won the contest. The exposure he got meant the tables turned and now he was the one being sought after. Nelson’s opportunity to debut at the Met came with its anxieties, which required him to sometimes not acknowledge the weight of the moment.
“It’s amazing. I mean, as an opera singer, it’s the pinnacle of the profession and it’s a feeling of achievement, it’s a feeling of tremendous responsibility. And you want to do right by yourself, so you get to come back,” said Nelson. “The history of the place, you actually can’t linger on it too much because you start to think about all the history of all the famous great singers and great singing that has happened in that space. It becomes a little bit too intimidating.”
Nelson said he, and the other performers, often have to “keep the blinders on” to avoid any added pressure that comes with performing at the famous location. But they’re pressures he welcomes. Celebrating his 35th birthday at the stroke of midnight before his debut, he acknowledges a privilege, and an honor, when it comes.
“Even a boy from suburban Los Angeles in the Santa Clarita Valley can bring themselves up to do anything that they really want to,” said Nelson.
Nelson debuts in “Champion” on Monday.