Vyna Restell’s garden is a lot like her life – colorful, artistic and imaginative. “It’s an English country garden,” she says. “I was born in Kent, the garden of England.”
On a blistering August day, there’s relief here in the fir-shaded cool of Vyna’s backyard. “Most of the garden is cuttings from friends,” Vyna said. “Four years ago it was nothing but grass.” A profusion of sweet peas, daisies, nasturtiums, lacy white potato vine and coral roses camouflage a fence. “I dug the post holes for that fence myself – in clay. It was good fun,” she says in a hearty English voice.
And that voice is the essence of Vyna. At 16 she was singing in a dance band in Essex. But the band had a problem – the dancers stopped dancing to listen to her. Her novice voice was startling in its fullness and tone, just waiting to be trained. But after this brief brush with success, asthma forced Vyna to give up singing for five years.
One morning, struggling under an oxygen tent, Vyna heard a “sergeant major nurse” storming into her hospital room, throwing open the tent and commanding her to breath. “Take singing lessons and learn how to breathe,” the nurse barked. And so Vyna did, thus beginning the career of a brilliant singer. After some impressive awards (in league with Janet Baker), Vyna earned a scholarship to the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester, where she made her debut in the opera, “The Bear.” The composer, Sir William Walter, took notice of the young soprano because she pulled off the ending like no one else had. Vyna can act, and she transformed her character the way the composer envisioned. She is an intense yet playful woman who engaged me thoroughly, chuckling while describing her debut as if it was yesterday.
But her real love is not opera, it’s recital work. “In opera you portray one character, divided from the audience by the orchestra pit. It’s safe.” In recital work, Vyna played many characters, each song demanding a new persona; the kind of challenge a really great singer-actress loves. Through her singing career, Vyna developed an enormous range, beginning in the lower range of a contralto, moving through mezzo voice and settling in the role a dramatic soprano. A “dramatic soprano” is defined as one with a powerful, emotive voice, able to take on the big roles, able to sing over a full orchestra with a rich, fuller sound than the lighter voice of a lyric soprano.
A vacation to California in 1981 eventually enticed Vyna into a 15-year teaching engagement at the University of California at Berkeley, where she trained young opera singers. “I like a serious student who understands discipline. Sopranos are two a penny. So you have a voice. So?” She shrugs. “I tell my students quality first, quantity second.” In other words, less volume and more vocal technique. And Vyna loves teaching. “My pet hate is people who think that teachers are failed performers.
The successful performer has more to offer students.”
During her years at Berkeley, Vyna continued to perform, “acting up a storm,” she laughs. One memorable performance happened during a staging of “Sampson and Delilah.” During this opera there is an unforgettable orgy scene, a real bacchanal, and the director was determined to go for the gusto. The women choristers, all soloists in their own right, were commanded, “no underwear on top.” It was an orgy, after all. Their filmy dresses were held up by loops at the shoulders. Well, Vyna’s right shoulder loop broke, and there she was with a major wardrobe malfunction. “After a fleeting hesitation, I just carried on. I got fan mail after that.”
And she got good reviews. After performing “Carmen” in England, one critic had this to say. “Vyna Restell’s Carmen was quite simply a tour de force. Every mood – passion, provocation, insincerity, volubility – was here in full measure and there was the voice, with thrilling low registers, to complement the formidable acting.” This from The Guardian no less.
Among her best memories is not a night of applause in a big opera house, but a night in a small club in Wales when she sang ballads and musical standards for free because the club had double booked and couldn’t afford to pay her. But the audience that night included a select group of singers who saw it differently. Members of a famous Welsh Men’s Choir from the fabled Rhonda Valley joined in the singing and saw to it she got paid.
Life as a performer can be a lonely one and Vyna knew a performer’s life didn’t fit with marriage. But in 2001, though in demand as a dramatic soprano, she scaled back and decided to focus on having a relationship. “I am married to a non-musical person who calls me a ‘noise teacher.’ He loves silence.” Manfred Werner also loves to see his partner “blossom and grow and has a howling sense of humor.”
Manfred and Vyna were living in San Francisco when they bought land on Gambier Island off B.C.’s southern coast. They decided to move to Point Roberts to be closer to Gambier, but soon realized Point Roberts was enough. “We sold Gambier and now we’re just here, having fun.” At 75, Vyna’s energy shows no sign of abating. She spends her time gardening, painting and teaching voice – living with the same verve that marked her years as a singer. With a few openings in her schedule, she welcomes new voice students. And she’s got plans. “Maybe a women’s Madrigal Group,” she ponders. “Here in Point Roberts.” Imagine that.
For more information on Vyna’s career and on opportunities to sing and train with her, visit www.vynasingingstudio.com