A woman’s melodious, operatic voice soared through the depths of the nearly vacant Wilshire-Normandie Metro station as she belted out Puccini while stepping off the Purple Line.
A Los Angeles police officer, moved by the beauty of the music, approached the petite woman and asked whether he could record her singing.
“I told him, ‘Please don’t do it.’ I felt intimidated,” she said. “What do you expect with a police officer taking a picture of you?”
The officer pressed, and eventually she agreed — but asked for the clip to not be posted online. With her light hair pulled back in pigtails, the subway songstress started singing again.
The video, posted on the LAPD’s Twitter account, has been viewed more than 438,000 times.
“4 million people call LA home. 4 million stories. 4 million voices ... sometimes you just have to stop and listen to one, to hear something beautiful,” the tweet said.
The post went viral and suddenly everyone wanted to know who the woman was.
Emily Zamourka says she learned to sing by imitating opera performers on TV as a child growing up in Russia. The 52-year-old says after years of financial difficulties and serious health problems, she is homeless, sleeping where she can and living on $400 a month in government aid.
But on Monday, she was recognized at the Wilshire-Normandie station as the celebrity she has become, posing for photographs with passersby who recognized the overnight singing sensation.
“God bless you,” one woman shouted from across the platform, waving her hands in the air.
Another woman stared in awe before embracing Zamourka and walking away. Commuters sneaked photos from afar. Zamourka smiled and waved bashfully.
“They want to say hello because they saw me sing,” she mused.
Not everyone appreciated Zamourka’s voice when they first heard her, though. Some thought she was a fake: a trained actor planted on the platform to maximize social media attention, not a talented homeless woman.
Branimir Kvartuc, a spokesman for Councilman Joe Buscaino who tried locating Zamourka after the video of her singing went viral, said those responses are indicative of the association of homelessness with drug addiction or mental illness, images that don’t fit with Zamourka’s demeanor.
“Way too many people have categorized the homeless as a certain kind of class,” he said. “That’s not the case. The majority of people are just people.”
Zamourka would describe only the basic contours of her life and some of the private struggles that had led to her riding a subway at night and walking in Glendale, Hollywood and Koreatown during the day, her belongings in a pushcart and reusable bags.
She said her lifelong love of music began as a schoolgirl in Russia, where she learned to play the violin and piano. At age 24, she moved to the United States and lived in Missouri for more than a decade, she said, working at a nursing home and restaurant, far removed from her musical roots.
“I didn’t want to be dependent on anybody,” Zamourka said. “I was having fun. I was learning English.”
It wasn’t until she moved to Vancouver, Wash., in the early 2000s that Zamourka rediscovered music. She offered piano lessons at a church, attracting up to 60 students.
“The students were happy,” she reminisced. “I was happy with their success.”
But medical problems cut short her dreams of a life in music.
In 2005, her pancreas and liver began to fail, and Zamourka said she struggled to find a diagnosis and treatment. Friends from Russia helped her find a hospital in Los Angeles, and she said after being admitted, she required feeding tubes during treatment from December 2007 to April 2008.
Zamourka had applied for political asylum and became a legal resident in 2008. When she was well enough to work again, she returned to teaching music — this time from a Glendale apartment a friend helped pay for. But unlike her Washington job, she said, she had fewer clients who were less consistent in their lessons, so she began to play the violin on the streets for extra cash.
“I love Drake,” she said of the rapper. “That’s what I was playing on the violin. Everybody loved that. ‘You used to call me on the cellphone.’ Everybody loved that.”
But hard times continued for Zamourka. The friend who had helped her financially died of a heart attack. One night, as she was playing the violin outside Clifton’s in downtown Los Angeles, someone took the instrument and broke it.
“I started to get behind with payments,” she said. “My landlord … one day he said, ‘Emily, I’m sorry, but you have to leave.’ ”
In the last few days, Zamourka’s spirits have been lifted by the kindness of strangers.
Desiree Newman, who works on Wilshire Boulevard near the Metro station, had heard about the video of Zamourka singing, but she hadn’t seen it. On Monday, she spied the subway singer surrounded by reporters as she stepped outside her building.
“Oh, my God, I have to get your picture,” Newman chirped, holding up her phone to take a selfie with Zamourka.
Sherry Christopher, who works with Newman, had some encouraging words for the woman who had fallen on hard times: “You’re gonna get way more, way more — everything — 10 times more than what you had. You’re going to get that.”
Zamourka said she was grateful for the newfound attention.
“I want to thank that police officer who did that video, and I wanted to thank God that he inspired me to do that.”
On Monday morning, Kvartuc connected with Zamourka to offer her a job. She is scheduled to sing Saturday evening at the opening of Little Italy, a strip in San Pedro celebrating Italian heritage in Los Angeles. The event was organized by Councilman Buscaino and the Little Italy of Los Angeles Assn.
“She was very excited, but I think we were more excited,” Kvartuc said. “We’re going to treat her like a star.”
The LAPD, Buscaino and political consultant Michael Trujillo are working to connect Zamourka with resources and housing. A GoFundMe campaign started by Trujillo has raised more than $45,000.
“My dreams are always there, of course,” Zamourka said. “Maybe it’ll come true this time.”