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

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ULM, Germany – It was his most important performance in 29 years. No costumes, no stage, no cavernous orchestra. Instead, a lone pianist crouched down waiting for her instrument. For an audience, a handful of doctors and nurses watched from the cool white hospital hallway.

Sergiy Ivanchuk – face covered in ice, legs shaking beneath his pants – began to hesitate. But as his baritone took hold, confidence grew. As he concludes a Ukrainian folk tune, his song soars with the passion of a man returning from the dead, a reveler with a resounding voice.

“In three months, I thought I was going to die,” he told the gathered. “And now, I can sing again.”

Not long before, Mr. Ivanchuk heard that he was lying on a hospital bed, his lungs were punctured by bullets, and his body was covered with a bunch of tubes.

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

Even if he survived, he remembered thinking, surely his singing days were over.

But a string of chance encounters, dedicated doctors and a mother’s love led to that unexpected performance at a German military hospital this summer, giving Mr. turns a tragedy into an opportunity to save his long-held dream of becoming an opera star. .

Mr. Ivanchuk said: “There were so many different circumstances that he wondered if his own science and spirit were the only factors that helped him recover. “There was something. God or an angel saved me. There was something there.”

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

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

Two years later, as the world began to reopen, Russia invaded, and Mr. Ivanchuk once again found himself trapped in Ukraine: Men of combat age were barred from leaving.

His dream quickly went up in smoke – opera singers should complete their training in their early 30s. No one can predict when the war will end.

But like so many of his countrymen, Mr. Ivanchuk wanted to join the war. Not on the front lines — “I’ll be useless for that,” he joked — but by using his 30-year-old blue Lada sedan to get civilians out of Kharkiv, Charming city in eastern Ukrainehours from his hometown, Poltava, where he grew up in a musical family.

It’s an exhausting habit. Every morning at 6 a.m., he drives to Kharkiv, stocking up on medicine and groceries for those left in the house. Every night, he picks up residents fleeing the encirclement who can’t afford to take a taxi out. He slept for a few hours at home with his parents, then started again.

His mother, Olena Ivanchuk, awaits his return each night in silent torment. But on the morning of March 10, his mother had to speak up: While cleaning, she noticed that the family’s religious symbols had all fallen off the table, which she assumed was a dark omen.

“When I told him, his face fell,” she said. “For the first time in my life, I said to him: ‘My son, I am afraid you will not come back this time.'”

Anyway, he left for Kharkiv.

That evening, Mr. Ivanchuk and his passengers packed their Lada with suitcases and pets. It was pitch black as they walked out of town. Through the darkness, bullets suddenly flew by.

In a terrifying game of cat and mouse, Mr. Ivanchuk sped along, trying to find the protection of a Ukrainian military checkpoint. But the Russian forces soon found their mark: 30 rounds hit the vehicle. Five times hit Mr. Ivanchuk.

“I feel every bullet. First it hit one leg, then another. Then I saw my fingers destroyed,” he said. “Then I felt a bullet in my side and back.”

Four people and two cats were in the car. However, only Mr. Ivanchuk was shot.

He probably wouldn’t have survived without one of his passengers, Viktoria Fostorina – a doctor. With the help of others in the car, she bandaged the wounds in his chest and back, in case a collapsed lung.

“In the beginning, I was the one who saved them,” he said. “But it turns out, in the end, they saved me.”

Somehow, he managed to get the car to a Ukrainian military checkpoint before collapsing.

The war lasted three weeks; Mr. Ivanchuk saved 100 people. When he felt himself unconscious in the hospital afterward, he prayed to God and prepared to die.

“I thought, ‘You’re 29 years old, and you’re going to die,’ he said, recalling his thoughts. “’I could have lived longer. But I tried to help people, so maybe that’s a good thing. ‘”

After searching for Mr. Ivanchuk for nearly two days, his mother found him at Kharkiv hospital, where doctors warned he might not survive. She tried to hold back her tears, smiled, and walked into her unconscious son’s room.

“I said, ‘Please, son, open your eyes.’ I told him: ‘One hundred percent, you will survive. You will live.’ I told him that a few times.”

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

Mrs. Ivanchuk recalled her son crying in pain during his early surgeries. Then tears welled up in his eyes as he realized that he would probably never perform again.

But fate stepped in again.

Mr. Ivanchuk’s story went viral on social media and a famous Ukrainian opera singer convinced a talented local surgeon to operate on him. His lungs and liver began to heal.

Though his recovery has begun, a dark struggle still lies ahead, one he almost lost.

For weeks, he lay among young soldiers hit by shells, who sometimes jumped out of bed at night, throwing imaginary grenades, screaming for their comrades to take cover.

Mr. Ivanchuk is paranoid that Russian spies lurk behind every door. And he grapples with the idea that rescuing people has cost him his dreams.

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

He has come to terms with those thoughts, in part by drawing lessons from his past struggles with depression. Psychotherapy during the pandemic has taught him to see his thoughts as the chemistry of his brain, not his inner self. And he began to accept that faith alone could not heal him: “I still believe in the Creator – but so much depends on us.”

Keeping his goals confined to his hospital room, Mr Ivanchuk and his mother celebrated even the smallest step towards recovery. Living each day and forgetting about his grand ambitions, he was surprised to discover that he felt more fulfilled before the attack.

“I used to think that without a dream it is impossible to become a happy person,” he said. “But now, I see that true happiness is just being alive.”

Once stable enough to walk, Mr. Ivanchuk was taken to Ulm, Germany, to perform advanced surgeries at a German military hospital.

As a musician, he wanted to restore as much dexterity as possible to his mutilated fingers – he had been playing the bandura, a Ukrainian stringed folk instrument, since childhood.

He tried not to think about opera until one night, on his third week in Ulm, when he started singing in the shower. He picked Valentin’s aria from “Faust” – and was amazed to hear his old voice.

Mr. Ivanchuk soon realized that not only were his dreams still possible – but that in a completely unforeseen turn that led to his near-fatal trauma, he was now better off to pursue them.

If it weren’t for the attack, he would still be stuck in Ukraine. Furthermore, he landed in Germany, the best place in the world for a budding opera singer. Thanks to subsidies for the arts, Germany has more than 80 full-time opera houses.

By the end of June, he was healthy enough to perform for hospital staff.

First, he sings “Ave Maria,” for its spirituality. Then an aria from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”, in honor of his German caretakers. The third song can only be Ukrainian and is a tribute to the woman who has devoted to his survival – “My own mother”.

She cried when he started. “I didn’t expect him to sing so loudly,” she said. “That’s because he did it with his heart.”

That same night, he was discharged from the hospital.

Dr Benedikt Friemert, head of orthopedic surgery at the hospital, said: ‘He is very active and has no complaints about his condition. “Quite the opposite: He believes what he did was right. He was unlucky and injured, but he said: ‘Never mind, I’ll get better to be able to do what’s important to me.’ In other words: sing. “

Mr. Ivanchuk, with a limp, a finger amputee and a body covered in shrapnel, still faces a difficult journey. He has a lot of physical therapy ahead of him.

He now rents an apartment in Ulm with his mother and he has started taking lessons from a Ukrainian opera singer, Maryna Zubko, who works at local theater. One day, they hope to sing together there.

“He has a wonderful voice,” said Ms. Zubko, who first encountered her student when a heavily bandaged man threw flowers at her leg after a local performance.

Her hope for Mr. Ivanchuk is to spend a year recuperating with her help, and then use his talent and story, to win a place at a prestigious program in Europe or United States to complete its training.

He dreamed of the Met and La Scala again. “I think in five years I could be in one of those stages,” Mr. Ivanchuk said. “As long as no one else shoots me.”

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