Diva rediviva

Michael Church meets Kyra Vayne, a long-forgotten voice from the Golden Age, given new life by CD
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Fame is a fickle thing: not everyone receives their due this side of the grave. Some get it early, then it's snatched away. For others, it comes in the last minutes of extra time. Think of HE Bates, who lived just long enough to savour television's discovery of his fictional Larkins, or of Vivian Ellis, the hottest West End composer in the Thirties, who was totally eclipsed for the next 40 years before seeing "Spread a Little Happiness" make it into the charts.

Last year, the early recordings of a forgotten soprano called Kyra Vayne were reissued on CD (by Preiser), and the first reviewer to react - in America's Fanfare magazine - asked: "How was it possible that such a singer has not come down to us as one of the century's most celebrated sopranos?" He noted the Slavic quality of the voice, and its warmth and glow.

That review began a landslide: sales of the record soared (it even overtook the Three Tenors in some specialist outlets) and the 80-year-old Vayne became a celebrity, sought for her reminiscences of operatic loucheness in bygone days. A second CD was released last week, and on Sunday Vayne will receive Middle-England's top cultural honour, a spin on Desert Island Discs.

I find her in the basement flat in Shepherd's Bush which she has shared with cats, porcelains and lovers on and off since 1938. She's quiet and poised, with a surprisingly strong handshake; she smokes throughout our talk. What have her last few months been like?

"Incredible. I was dead against the CD being made - I was terrified the press were going to tear my voice to shreds. Over the years, I'd begun to think I must have been mediocre after all. Then the crits came out. I read and re-read them, sideways and upside-down, and couldn't believe the unanimity. I couldn't relate the situation to myself - I had two near- breakdowns. But now I have accepted it - and it's wonderful."

"I don't want you to think I'm a weirdo, but there has been an occult side to it all." Meaning? "Would you like to hear a poem I have written, which expresses it better than I could in conversation?" She sets a tape- recorder going, and out comes Blake crossed with Brief Encounter, telling of a visit from a clairvoyant who announces that her voice will be "reborn".

The machine clicks off. "You see, all my life I've had prophecies, which have often come true." At 16, her dead stepsister appeared to her in a seance and told her she would become an opera singer - "which at the time was a totally outlandish thought".

Odder still, when she was in mid-career (singing Tosca in all the world's top opera houses) and her agent was going broke, "a fortune-teller told me that in a past existence I had been a ballet dancer who committed suicide at the age of 40, and she said she could see the pattern repeating itself. Well, my agent did kill himself, leaving me destitute. I didn't kill myself, but I did give up singing, which was a kind of moral suicide."

She gave her piano to the blind, her costumes to a hospital drama group, and sold her stage jewellery - via a friend, who she now thinks robbed her - to Covent Garden for pounds 35. "And then I started my other life." Other life? "As a nonentity." She still got intermittent invitations to sing and each time recovered her form.

But she was now, in effect, a secretary. "I spent years working at the BBC, but they never made the link between my secretarial self and the self whose voice they broadcast. And I never thought it worth telling them."

She kept her recordings in a cardboard box under her bed, and there they stayed for 30 years until a fluke chain of events brought a saviour to her door. When fame struck, ghosts from the past emerged, like the alcoholic ex-husband whom she had left after he'd beaten her black and blue. Forty years on, as she was about to do a record-signing, he pushed forward. "He said, 'Don't you recognise me?' And I said, 'I don't wish to.' 'Why?' 'Because I don't remember one moment of happiness with you.' "

More poignantly, she was contacted by the nephew of a friend killed in the Second World War. He had been excited to discover that the name ringing through his uncle's letters belonged to someone still alive. The shock of this discovery, she says, precipitated one of her near-breakdowns: she'd never realised the depth of her dead friend's affections.

But Kyra Vayne was a nom de guerre adopted for a Scottish tour of a musical called Bonnie Prince Charlie. Before that, her name was Vronska, though that was a stage-name too: she was born Kyra Knopmuss in St Petersburg, whence her family fled the Bolsheviks, lucky to escape with their lives. She discovered she had a voice when she began singing folk-songs at the Russian Club in Baron's Court.

Her subsequent career had glittered - she was seriously mooted as a successor to Callas - but her elbows were never quite sharp enough to get her to the top. "There was so much corruption in opera, it's a miracle I achieved what I did, without either money or... the other thing!" The casting couch was not a Hollywood invention.

So, what are her biggest regrets? "That Glyndebourne and Covent Garden didn't give me the chance of singing Russian roles; I had to sing them abroad." She thinks for a moment: "And that, though I did a tremendous amount of broadcasting for the BBC, all the tapes have been destroyed.

"But I prefer to look forward, not back. I want to teach now; I know I have something to give. All this was fated to happen. This is my karma."

n Preiser CDs 89993 and 89996, available from Harmonia Mundi