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5 Russian Bullets Dashed an Opera Singer’s Dreams. Then He Reclaimed His Voice.


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ULM, Germany — It was probably the most pivotal performance of his 29 years. There have been no costumes, no stage, no orchestra pit. As an alternative, a lone pianist hunched expectantly over her instrument. For an audience, a handful of doctors and nurses watched from a cool white hospital lobby.

Sergiy Ivanchuk — his face patched with bandages, legs trembling beneath his trousers — began hesitantly. But as his deep baritone held, confidence grew. By the point he finished with a Ukrainian folk tune, his song soared with the fervour of a person brought back from the dead, a person reveling in a voice reclaimed.

“For 3 months, I assumed I might die,” he told those assembled. “And now, I can sing again.”

Not long before, Mr. Ivanchuk had believed he was on his deathbed, his lungs punctured by bullets, his body attached to a tangle of tubes.

On March 10, Mr. Ivanchuk, an aspiring opera singer, had been working with humanitarian volunteers helping civilians flee the besieged Ukrainian city of Kharkiv when Russian forces attacked, and he was shot.

Even when he managed to survive, he remembered pondering, surely his singing days were over.

But a string of probability encounters, committed doctors and the love of a mother all led to that unexpected performance in a German military hospital this summer, giving Mr. Ivanchuk a probability to remodel a tragedy into a possibility to salvage his longtime dream of opera stardom.

“So many alternative circumstances needed to occur,” said Mr. Ivanchuk, wondering if science and his own spirit were the one aspects in his recovery. “There’s something. God or an angel saved me. There’s something there.”

In 2020, Mr. Ivanchuk was studying opera in Italy, and he had big ambitions: to perform on the stages of the Metropolitan in Recent York and La Scala in Milan.

Then the pandemic closed borders across the globe. His music school was closed, and Mr. Ivanchuk was stuck in Ukraine, combating severe depression.

Two years later, because the world began reopening, Russia invaded, and Mr. Ivanchuk found himself trapped in Ukraine over again: Men of fighting age were banned from leaving the country.

His dream was rapidly fading — opera singers should complete their training by their early 30s. Nobody could guess when the war would end.

Yet like so lots of his compatriots, Mr. Ivanchuk wanted to affix the fight. Not on the front lines — “I’d be useless for that,” he joked — but through the use of his 30-year-old blue Lada sedan to drive civilians out of Kharkiv, the embattled city in eastern Ukraine, just a few hours from his hometown, Poltava, where he had grown up in a musical family.

It was a grueling routine. Every morning at 6, he drove to Kharkiv, laden with medicine and groceries for those still inside. Every night, he picked up residents fleeing the siege, who couldn’t afford a taxi out. He slept just a few hours at home together with his parents, then began again.

His mother, Olena Ivanchuk, awaited his return each night in silent torment. But on the morning of March 10, his mother needed to speak: While dusting, she noticed the family’s religious icons had all fallen from the table, which she perceived as a dark omen.

“Once I told him, his face fell,” she said. “For the primary time in my life, I told him: ‘My son, I fear perhaps this time you won’t return.’”

He left for Kharkiv anyway.

That night, Mr. Ivanchuk and his passengers packed his Lada to the brim with suitcases and pets. It was pitch black as they made their way out of town. Through the darkness, bullets suddenly whizzed past.

In a terrifying game of cat and mouse, Mr. Ivanchuk sped along, trying to search out the protection of a Ukrainian military checkpoint. However the Russian forces soon found their mark: 30 bullets hit the automotive. Five hit Mr. Ivanchuk.

“I felt each bullet. First it hit one leg, then the leg over again. Then I saw my fingers destroyed,” he said. “After that, I felt a bullet in my side and back.”

4 people and two cats were contained in the automotive. Yet only Mr. Ivanchuk had been shot.

He likely wouldn’t have survived if not for one in all his passengers, Viktoria Fostorina — a physician. With the assistance of the others within the automotive, she bandaged the injuries on his chest and back, stopping a collapsed lung.

“At first, I used to be the one saving them,” he said. “But because it turned out, ultimately, they saved me.”

Someway, he managed to drive the automotive to a Ukrainian military checkpoint before collapsing.

The war was three weeks old; Mr. Ivanchuk had already rescued 100 people. As he felt himself losing consciousness within the hospital later, he prayed to God, and ready to die.

“I used to be pondering, ‘You’re only 29, and also you’re dying,” he said, recalling his thoughts. “‘I could have lived longer. But I attempted to assist people, so perhaps it’s a great thing.’”


Sept. 15, 2022, 5:56 a.m. ET

After looking for Mr. Ivanchuk for nearly two days, his mother found him on the Kharkiv hospital, where doctors warned he won’t survive. She forced back tears, entering the room of her unconscious son with a smile.

“I said, ‘Please, son, open your eyes.’ I told him: ‘100%, you’ll survive. You’ll live.’ I told him that several times.”

Mr. Ivanchuk remembers awakening to her smiling face. But he couldn’t speak: Tubes were coming out of his mouth. His body was in such pain, he could communicate only by twitching one finger.

Ms. Ivanchuk recalled her son’s crying from the pain of his early operations. Later, his tears got here from his realization he might never perform again.

But fate stepped in over again.

Mr. Ivanchuk’s story spread on social media, and a outstanding Ukrainian opera singer convinced a talented surgeon within the country to operate on him. His lungs and liver began to heal.

Though his recovery had begun, a dark struggle was still ahead, one he almost lost.

For weeks, he lay amongst shellshocked young soldiers who sometimes jumped away from bed at night, throwing imaginary grenades, screaming at comrades to take cover.

Mr. Ivanchuk grew paranoid that Russian spies lurked behind every door. And he grappled with the concept rescuing people had cost him his dream.

“It was a marathon of pain and psychological torment,” he said.

He faced down those thoughts, thanks partly by drawing on lessons from his past struggle with depression. Psychotherapy through the pandemic had taught him to see his thoughts as brain chemistry, not his inner self. And he began to just accept that faith alone couldn’t heal him: “I still consider within the Creator — but loads is determined by us.”

Keeping his goals confined to his hospital room, Mr. Ivanchuk and his mother celebrated even the tiniest step toward recovery. Taking life daily, and forgetting his big ambitions, he was surprised to find he felt more content than before the attack.

“I used to think that with no dream, it was unimaginable to be a joyful person,” he said. “But now, I see that happiness is definitely simply to live.”

Once stable enough for travel, Mr. Ivanchuk was sent to Ulm, Germany, for advanced surgeries at a German military hospital.

As a musician, he desired to restore as much dexterity as possible to his mutilated fingers — he has played the bandura, a Ukrainian stringed folk instrument, since childhood.

He tried to not take into consideration opera until one night, on his third week in Ulm, when he began to sing within the shower. He selected Valentin’s aria from “Faust” — and was astounded to listen to his old voice.

Mr. Ivanchuk soon realized that not only were his dreams still possible — but that, in an entirely unanticipated twist to his nearly fatal injury, he was now higher placed to pursue them.

If not for the attack, he would have remained stuck in Ukraine. Furthermore, he had landed in Germany, the very best place on the earth for a budding opera singer. Due to its subsidies for the humanities, Germany has over 80 full-time opera houses.

By late June, he was well enough to perform for the hospital staff.

First, he sang “Ave Maria,” for its spirituality. Then, an aria from “The Magic Flute,” by Mozart, to honor his German caretakers. The third song could only be Ukrainian and a tribute to the lady dedicated to his survival — “My Own Mother.”

She cried as he began. “I didn’t expect he could sing that loudly,” she said. “It’s because he was doing it together with his heart.”

That evening, he was discharged.

“He was extremely positive, he didn’t complain in any respect about his situation,” said Dr. Benedikt Friemert, the pinnacle orthopedic surgeon on the hospital, describing his patient’s recovery. “Quite the other: He was convinced that what he had done was right. He was unlucky and got injured, but he said: ‘Never mind, I’ll get well in order that I can do what’s essential to me.’ In other words: singing.”

Mr. Ivanchuk, with a slight limp, a missing finger and a body peppered with bullet fragments, still faces a difficult journey. He has more physiotherapy ahead.

He now rents an apartment in Ulm together with his mother, and he has began receiving lessons from a Ukrainian opera singer, Maryna Zubko, who works at the local theater. In the future, they hope to sing together there.

“He has a lovely voice,” said Ms. Zubko, who first encountered her pupil when a heavily bandaged man threw flowers at her feet after a neighborhood performance.

Her hope for Mr. Ivanchuk is to spend a 12 months recovering together with her help then use his talent, and his story, to earn a spot at a prestigious program in Europe or the US to complete his training.

He’s dreaming again of the Met and La Scala. “I feel in five years, I could make it onto one in all those stages,” Mr. Ivanchuk said. “So long as nobody else shoots me.”

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