A fortnight ago, Irina Lungu’s Instagram account was a stark snapshot of how the coronavirus pandemic has uprooted the lives of many.
Fresh from completing a sold-out run of performances in both Oman’s Royal Opera House Muscat and the Sydney Opera House in Australia, Lungu detailed her quest to reunite with her 10-year-old son in Milan before Italy shut its borders.
Lungu departed Sydney on March 13, beginning a 44-hour journey that included long waits in Dubai and Rome where she scrambled to find a seat in one of the few remaining flights.
Fortunately, Lungu managed to make it home hours before Italy closed its doors to the world.
But she arrived in a city that remains unrecognisable.
That constant hum of fashion, culture and commerce underscoring Milanese life was replaced with a sound she hasn’t heard in all her 17 years living in the city.
"Silence. That's what I remember the most. The streets and piazza's were silent," she tells The National. "From my arrival in the airport to the drive home I just saw this great emptiness. Soldiers and policeman were on the street. It reminded me of my childhood growing up in Moldova in the former Soviet Union. Milan became a police state, no one could leave their homes without having their documents checked."
Only this time, the people are behind the restrictive measures.
"There is a sense that we will get through this," she says. "It is now just a matter of understanding why we are in this situation ... [because] we need to stay home and be responsible to protect the elderly who are very affected by the virus.
“Many people have died who should have lived 20 years more. I look at it as my responsibility to stay home as much as I can.”
Echoes of the Soviet Union
As she edges towards the third week of quarantine at home, Lungu, 39, admits it has come with its fair share of challenges. One of them is finding ways to stimulate her 10-year-old son – an avid swimmer and fencer – through homeschooling and activities.
“I am mixing things up. So we would do homeschooling and then, for example, we would watch a movie or documentary about that topic,” Lungu says.
“I try to be organised and make sure we can learn something new each day. But as you know, you can’t do that all the time as kids need to have fun and not just learn. So I am arranging different activities and we play a lot of games together. I have to say, we did a good job together the past two weeks. We are happy and not bored. Well, yet, anyway.”
Providing food and essentials for the household has also proved to be an ordeal. With large retailers and home deliveries restricted, going out to the corner shop to buy groceries takes up to an hour.
Again, the image of the long, snaking line of people waiting to buy bread triggered more memories of life back in the Soviet Union.
“The last time I was waiting in line for groceries was in the 1990s. So this picture, once again, left a deep impression on me,” Lungu says. “The line was long because we couldn’t stand very close to each other, of course. And the supermarket would only allow five people to enter at one time.”
Even with the home fully stocked, Lungu admits to feeling a deep void difficult to fill. It is the inability to express herself on stage that continues to gnaw at her during particularly difficult nights.
From Moldova to Milan
Born in Moldova, Lungu studied music from the age of 6 and has been performing from the age of 18. In the 20 years since, she has performed in many of the world's leading opera houses, including Milan's La Scala, New York's Metropolitan Opera and France’s Opera National de Paris.
UAE fans also experienced her talent when she was a special guest of Placido Domingo when the Spanish tenor performed at the official opening of Dubai Opera in 2016.
“My life is very fast paced and I love that,” Lungu says. “The beauty of being a singer is that it places you in the centre of society. So I travel and meet many people and experience cultures. The fact that I can’t do that at the moment is painful.”
Lungu dismisses the idea of joining her fellow Milanese citizens who made global headlines by singing from their balconies.
“It is not the singing that I miss,” she says. “What I miss is the concentration that comes with being on stage. I miss that moment when I am so focused, yet so relaxed, and there is a crowd in front of me. I miss everything that comes with the theatre world.”
And just what kind of world Lungu will step back into once the pandemic abates is a source of worry for her. She says that the Italian theatre industry has been hit hard, with many small companies facing a slim chance of survival.
“The scene will not be the same after this and we, as people involved in the industry and the public, are faced with two possibilities,” she says.
“We can either let the whole opera sector be destroyed. Or we focus on the things that are important for its survival.”
If the latter is chosen, Lungu believes that it will require a team effort – from artists to the public – to go out and support the smaller independent opera companies.
“Everybody has a responsibility in doing this,” she says. “Sometimes we have to take the smaller contracts and perform in these smaller places. I do that normally as it is a chance to sing in a calmer situation and is an opportunity for me to improve my technique.”
Milan is love at second sight
Fortunately, Lungu says, the normally competitive Milanese opera community are bandying together in support. “There are people who I haven't spoken to in years who are now messaging and asking how I am. I am doing the same thing and this is very nice,” she says.
"We are all sending each other messages and letting each other know what shows are being cancelled and how we can help. We are all working together to update our contacts."
While welcoming the camaraderie, Lungu says she is not completely surprised. After all, this is the Milanese way, and it is for this reason alone she knows that the city will find its feet sooner rather than later.
“It is a city where you love it on second sight,” she says.
“The Milanese character is the same. The people don’t appear friendly at first, but once you are connected it is a deep friendship. That’s because Milan and its people value depth above everything. The people here value their heritage and at the same time they are pragmatic and hard working. This will pass and Milan will be back.”