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‘Like a miracle’: Homeless woman’s viral subway opera performance may get her off the streets

Her piercing soprano ricocheted off the subway’s concrete walls, drowning out the robot announcing the next train’s arrival.

The vocalist stood by herself near the end of the platform, holding a slew of hole-punctured bags on one arm and lugging a cart draped with a blanket in the other. She wore a floor-length denim skirt, her hair in girlish blond pigtails. And although it was the middle of a Los Angeles rush hour, around 5:15 p.m. on Sept. 24, the Purple Line station in Koreatown was notably silent. There were no passersby as she sang the opera, no whoops or claps.

From the video taken by one captivated Los Angeles police officer, it looked as though the homeless woman was alone on her own stage, commanding the attention of an unseen audience as she sent Giacomo Puccini’s Italian aria “O mio babbino caro” careening down the tunnel.

“4 million people call LA home,” the Los Angeles Police Department tweeted two days later, sharing the one-minute video clip the officer captured. “4 million stories. 4 million voices … sometimes you just have to stop and listen to one, to hear something beautiful.”

Overnight, Emily Zamourka became a viral sensation.

Hundreds of thousands of people watched her perform in the LAPD’s one-minute video. The local news tracked down Zamourka in Koreatown to reveal who she was: a Russian immigrant who became homeless after a man stole her violin, which was her livelihood, and the musician ended up evicted. Hundreds of people have since donated to online fundraisers to help her get off the streets.

And Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino (D), hearing her Italian operatic solo, invited the 52-year-old to perform at the unveiling of the city’s new Little Italy district on Saturday. Then, his office immediately started working on finding her housing, Buscaino’s spokesman, Branimir Kvartuc, told The Washington Post.

Zamourka’s tale may seem like a classic L.A. story, Kvartuc said: a gifted performer plucked out of the unlikeliest of places after a chance discovery, “like the ‘American Idol’ story, but on social media.” But where the allure of overnight fame brushes up against the city’s homelessness crisis, Kvartuc said, it gets complicated. He wanted to get Zamourka off the streets in just one night, he said, but as with many of the thousands of homeless people in Los Angeles, the transition typically takes much longer.

“It’s not easy-peasy saying, ‘Here’s your new life,’ ” Kvartuc said. “The thing is, I have so much more news for her. ‘You never have to spend another night outside again.’ But I can’t seem to deliver it to her.”

Late Monday night, he was driving around Koreatown looking for her.

The outpouring of support was escalating faster than she knew, he said. She had accepted the invitation to perform at Little Italy earlier on Monday, but afterward, Buscaino’s office had come up with a bolder plan: They called back Monday night, offering to put her up in an Airbnb while they figured out a more permanent place for her to live.

But when Kvartuc relayed that offer, she seemed hesitant, he said. By 10:30 p.m., he couldn’t reach her.

“She’s been overwhelmed with the attention,” he said.

Immediately after the LAPD’s video went viral last week, Angelenos wanted to know her story. Some said they had seen her before, playing the violin or singing “Ave Maria” on one corner, feeding pigeons on another. Some thought she was too good to be true, supposedly not looking homeless enough while singing opera.

But then the local news managed to find her.

They asked her where she learned to sing like that. She said that she was never classically trained and that she did not attend music school, but that she would take any opportunity to sing on a stage.

“You know why I do it in the subway?” she asked. “Because it sounds so great. It feels like I’m already there.”

She said she was born in Russia and came to the United States when she was 24. To make a living, she said, she taught violin and piano lessons until she started having health problems, which the news outlets did not specify. Eventually, she turned to street performances with her prized $10,000 violin — until a few years ago, when it was stolen

“When I lost that,” she told KABC Monday, “I felt like I lost everything.”

It happened outside a restaurant in downtown Los Angeles, and was in part captured on video. Zamourka had just finished a performance in front of a modest group of fans, when suddenly a man who had been standing in the crowd swooped in and snatched her violin. A friend who was there that night, Whitney Smith, recalled the incident to KABC on Monday.

“All of a sudden, I just hear her scream,” Smith said. She said two young men then chased the thief down the street as Smith turned her phone’s camera on to record. “I was standing there with her, saying ‘Don’t worry about it — they’re going to get him.’ Well, they did catch up to him, but the guy threw the violin down violently.”

Video footage Smith captured that night showed Zamourka crying over the broken instrument. A man tried to assure her that the strings were still attached. Zamourka knew it didn’t matter. “Oh, my violin!” she cried in one long sob.

Shortly after the theft, Zamourka started sleeping on cardboard, she said, sometimes feeling threatened and scared, looking for shelter wherever she could find it.

Now, she said, “what’s happening is something I can’t believe.”

“I’m speechless,” she told KABC. “It’s almost like a miracle.”

Michael Trujillo, a Los Angeles-based political consultant, was among those watching the story on the local news over the weekend. He created a GoFundMe page for her. “It was just sort of spur of the moment,” he said.

By early Tuesday morning, nearly 800 people had donated more than $30,000.

Trujillo said he contacted the Downtown Women’s Center to see if they might use the money on Zamourka’s behalf to provide services and help her find long-term housing. (The center declined to comment, citing privacy rules.) “It’s just a matter of trying to do this in a way she’s comfortable with,” he said.

On Monday night, Trujillo explained his plan to Kvartuc, just as the councilman’s spokesman set out to find Zamourka.

Kvartuc grew frustrated as his search turned fruitless, like he couldn’t wait another hour to assure Zamourka that her nights on the streets could end.

“She has earned this already,” he said. “I don’t know if she knows it yet.”

|The Washington Post

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