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Tour this Central Saanich home designed with different tastes, story, photo, video

Opera director Timothy Vernon loves a bold, ornate look; his wife prefers classical decor in pastels. Together, they've created a harmonious home


Writer Grania Litwin and photographer Frances Litman are known for their sense of style and knowledge of outstanding design. They tour homes around the south Island, talking to homeowners, interior designers, architects and artists who influence the way we live.

Thirteen massive hand-hammered yak bells stand on a shelf in Timothy Vernon's garden workshop.

No, he doesn't raise the shaggy Himalayan beasts of burden, but the music man does love the sound such a chorus of bells makes when echoing down a mountain valley.

"I bought them from a percussionist and think I will turn them into an enormous wind chime," said the artistic director of Pacific Opera Victoria, striking one and listening with rapt attention before emitting a roar of laughter.

Vernon has many plans for the sweeping Central Saanich property overlooking the Mount Newton Valley he and his wife bought 21 years ago, but he always checks with Wendy first, because they have very different taste. That's why they've divided their home into zones where each makes his or her own decisions: Wendy's graceful style holds sway in the upper two floors, while Timothy calls the shots downstairs. He also rules the rustic roost in a small cottage he built on the lower property.

"We had to make that arrangement because Timothy and I have completely opposite taste," said Wendy with a chuckle. "We're at totally opposite ends of the spectrum and finding things we agree on takes enormous effort.

"I'm very classical and feminine. I like things to be light, white and pastel, whereas Tim likes red. As you can see, I've compromised," she said, looking with a wince toward his brick-red cushioned deck furniture."

'His taste is eclectic. He goes for the rustic Italian look, which to me isn't as refined. He also likes bigger-scaled things, and spicy food, while I'm terribly bland - even picking a restaurant is hard," Wendy said.

Yet the result of this division of flavour is a charming and surprising home that reflects both their personalities, as well as a shared love of art and music.

The two met when she was just 10 and he was 12. Timothy sang the lead in the opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, while Wendy played a shepherdess, and her mother, renowned local sculptor, gardener and singer Peggy Walton Packard, sang the part of Amahl's mother.

"We have always been friends and after he returned from 11 years of musical training in Europe we got married, 36 years ago. It was like we'd been waiting for each other.

"We share so much: a mutual love of art, a common history, having grown up in the same town, with many of the same people and influences."

They also fell in love with the house the minute they saw it. Situated on 5.3 hectares, their French country house overlooks farmland rolling down to Tod Inlet. While informal, it exudes an atmosphere of refined country living.

"This house is very unfussy - there's nothing grand about it," said Wendy, illustrating her point by gesturing toward their indestructible cast-iron dining table, which was made in France and takes four men to move.

Designed by Pamela Charlesworth, the mansardroofed house was modelled after an old Quebec home that previous owners admired. Their marriage dissolved shortly after it was built, and the Vernons bought it while it was still unfinished.

They raised their four children - now in their late 20s to mid-30s - there. While the three-storey home is large, just under 4,000 square feet, it's not imposing.

It's built on a hillside, so only two levels are visible from the road, and the cottagey look is enhanced by masses of plantings and climbing David Austen roses that blur the edges.

Timothy's domain downstairs includes a large studio-library with a piano at one end, sitting area at the other and a screen dividing the two. Here, he prepares scores for orchestras and operas. A display of classical tablets hangs on a hot-red wall over a long bank of cabinets that he made and then topped with travertine. He also designed and made all the bookcases, including a free-standing one by the piano that's double sided

"How do you make something like this stable?" he asked with a grin.

"You fill the bottom with a coffin full of sand, that's how."

Above the bookcase is a sculpture of a rearing horse and rider made by his mother-in-law and inspired by a famous song by Schubert, called Der Erlkönig.

A slab of wood that used to be a countertop in a 150-year-old butcher shop in Holstein, Ont., now serves as his desk. "It was being dismantled and I figured it would make a great work area. I love the old nails."

Timothy also went wild creating an eclectic, Italianate-style sitting room downstairs, complete with gold stencils along the walls, a pattern he continued onto the curtains.

"When I was on the McGill University faculty for 15 years, I had a tiny Montreal flat, and decorated each of my four small rooms differently. This is where all the stuff landed."

Upstairs, a large deck wraps around the house and welcomes visitors. The view strikes a familiar chord in almost everyone, said Wendy. Guests from far and wide step outside, gasp at the view, and exclaim that it reminds them of England, Germany, Tuscany or a favourite valley in France.

The latter pleases Wendy, who adores French-country style. "It's so elegant and clean looking." In her design realm - on the main and upper floors - she mixes soft Dijon shades with off-white and tangerine. Textiles are silky and furniture is curvy.

One of the biggest changes they made was replacing the for-merly blond, narrow-plank wooden floor with a dark pecan, wide-planked one.

"It transformed the quality of the area more than any other single thing," she said, adding they also did a complete kitchen makeover, installing a bigger window and light-toned cabinets, and taking the former two-level island down to one.

Another huge improvement was having their Toronto-based son-in-law Ryan Graziano build a new deck off their kitchen.

Windows on the main floor are framed with billowing taffeta drapes, which Wendy made a foot longer than necessary to pool resplendently on the floor. A specialist in classical ballet costuming who owns Gossamer Costume Construction and Design, Wendy made many of the home's soft furnishings. She also teaches at Pacific Dance Centre, and coordinates the DanceWorks festival.

"I have to make an appointment to talk to her," joked Timothy, 65, who notes neither of them is thinking of retirement yet.

Wendy, 63, says she loves all three of her jobs. "It's a great balance," she said.

Timothy, who is just back from Edmonton, where he was working with Opera Nuova, is Conductor Laureate of Orchestra London and makes guest appearances coast to coast. He has projects coming up in Montreal and Calgary, and has conducted with every major orchestra and opera company in Canada.

But now his focus is on Pacific Opera.

"It needs a constant infusion of imagination to sustain its vitality, at a time when all companies are threatened.

"Now is the time to plan with as much dexterity and nimbleness as we can," said the founding director, who clearly lacks no powers of invention or imagination.

One glance around his house shows both his love of the musical arts and his creative gifts.

"I do like coming into a room and feeling entertained," he admitted.

"Wendy likes things clean and uncluttered, but I like texture.

She has a great eye and unerring sense of what's right. - Me, I'm into fantasy."

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