Obituary: Thomson Smillie, opera administrator and director

Thomson Smillie: Impresario who brought Scottish Opera to the world stage
Thomson Smillie: Impresario who brought Scottish Opera to the world stage
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Born: 20 September, 1942, in Glasgow. Died: 18 January, 2014, in Kentucky, aged 71

Thomson Smillie was an early doyen at Scottish Opera (SO) and at the forefront of advancing the company’s potential throughout Scotland. Smillie was initially SO’s director of public relations and guided the company after some anxious early years to become a major force not only in Scotland but internationally.

His exuberant personality made him an ideal man to be in charge of press relations: he knew opera, and represented the views and committed plans for the company – led with much imagination by Sir Alexander Gibson and Peter Hemmings.

Smillie, with his broad smile and smart appearance (he was often seen wearing a colourful bow tie) enjoyed the company of musicians.

He once commented: “I won first prize in the lottery of life. I had an extremely happy childhood and my parents were devoted to one another and I grew up in a nice flat in Glasgow.”

His mother had furthered Smillie’s interest in music by taking him to see the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company on their annual visits to the city – it is thought Smillie knew the entire canon of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas by heart.

Thomson Smillie read English and Economics at Glasgow University. While at university he was president of the musical theatre group, the Cecilian Society, where he often appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan productions. He was also active in the university’s Drawing Room Society.

When he graduated he worked briefly in publishing in Glasgow but he had got to know Hemmings through the Cecilian Society, and in 1966 began a three-month trial doing publicity for a new production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes.

Such was Smillie’s flair and commitment in publicising the opera that he was taken on by SO and became an integral part in its expansion and success.

It was a halcyon period for SO and Gibson undertook the huge challenge of mounting Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 1974 – with the Scottish born David Ward in triumphant form as Wotan.

Smillie ensured this most adventurous project got international coverage and established SO as a company with a worldwide reputation.

Other productions that SO mounted while he was press officer included a majestic new production of Verdi’s Falstaff with Geraint Evans as the fat knight, an acclaimed production of Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Britten’s The Turn of the Screw and Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

With his quiet but convincing manner, Smillie set a high standard for liaising with the national and Scottish press that was immediate, courteous and honest.

He took the press into his confidence and if things were not going according to plan he simply admitted it.

The director David Pountney, who often worked at SO in the Seventies, remembers Smillie as “one who was born to communicate”.

By the late Seventies, Smillie was a major force in the management of SO and in 1978 become the company’s director of development.

In 1975, SO acquired the Theatre Royal in Hope Street, Glasgow as a permanent base.

It had been the home of STV since 1957 and the refurbishment into an opera house required much patience and diplomacy – qualities much demonstrated by Smillie throughout those demanding months.

For five years (1973 to 1978) Smillie also acted as the artistic director for the Wexford International Festival. He flung himself into the operatic fun, championing lesser-known works by Massenet.

He said that the moment he remembered best was the sound of Jonathan Miller, there to discuss a production of The Turn of the Screw, standing on a clifftop shouting obscenities across the Irish Sea about the vagaries of London opera directors.

After a few years with the Boston Opera, Smillie was appointed artistic director of Kentucky Opera, where in his first season he demonstrated his resolve by producing Gluck’s Alceste. Britten’s Turn of the Screw, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd were all soon to follow.

His drive and commitment to the company never faltered and he raised the profile, and the company’s reputation, considerably.

He retained his connections with SO and mounted Pountney’s gloriously outrageous production of Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel.

Smillie moved to Louisville in 1981, and joined the Kentucky Opera. After a year he became its director, and remained in the post for 15 years.

After retiring, he and his family decided to stay in America and he embarked on another career – lecturing to music societies and on cruise ships. His love of opera was delightfully captured in his book How to Listen, Learn, Love Opera.

His first wife, Anne, predeceased him. He is survived by his second wife Marilyn and his four children.