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 aria, no whoops or claps.
From the video taken by one captivated Los Angeles police officer, it looked as if 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” careering 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 ended up evicted. She lived and worked in Missouri and in Washington state, where she offered piano lessons.
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 Saturday’s unveiling of the city’s new Little Italy district. 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 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 on 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,” Kvartuc 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.
The local news managed to find her.
They asked, where did you learn to sing like that? She said she was never classically trained nor did she ever attend music school, but 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.”
Zamourka 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 captured in part 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 Zamourka’s 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 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, more than 700 people had donated nearly $29,000.
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, as if 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.”