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Thomson Smillie

Scottish Opera administrator, director and lecturer.

Born September 20, 1942; Died January 18, 2014.

Thomson Smillie, who has died aged 71, was a Glaswegian whose career, from adolescence through to retirement, was a gloriously prolonged theatrical event. As Scottish Opera's first full-time director of public relations, he quickly gained root-and-branch knowledge of how a fledgling company develops into a national entity.

Before graduating in English and Economics from Glasgow University, and gaining, at the age of 21, the key to Scottish Opera's door, he was already president of Glasgow's Cecilian Music Society. In 1961, a large picture in the Evening Citizen showed him camping outside the King's Theatre with a fellow student in order to be first in the queue for seats for Madama Butterfly and Pelleas et Melisande, the works that famously launched the company's initial Glasgow season. The fellow student was Anne Pringle, soon to become his wife.

It was he who announced the start of Scottish Opera's first Ring cycle, along with its first ventures into Benjamin Britten and, with Geraint Evans in the title role, Verdi's Falstaff. Those were the company's golden years and Mr Smillie knew exactly how to project them.

Year after year he had plenty to announce, and his colleagues learned to savour his wit, candour and directness. Almost alone among directors of public relations, or what were previously called press officers, he refreshingly spoke the truth, and spoke it not only merrily but at times with a rare subversiveness.

His time with Scottish Opera took him up to the celebrated acquisition of the Theatre Royal in 1975, but by then, like Peter Hemmings, the company's first general administrator, he was beginning to look around for other operatic adventures.

So when the Wexford Festival - Ireland's least solemn musical event - advertised for a new administrator, Mr Smillie was quick to apply - and was appointed. This was the opera festival which London critics praised annually as the antidote to austere Edinburgh. For five years, Mr Smillie flung himself into the operatic fun, championing lesser-known works by Massenet, though he said that the moment he remembered best was the sound of Jonathan Miller, there to discuss The Turn of the Screw, standing on a clifftop shouting obscenities across the Irish Sea about the vagaries of London opera directors.

After Wexford, Mr Smillie went on moving westwards, this time to Boston as general manager of the churlish - though hugely ambitious - Sarah Caldwell's Boston Opera Company, which taught him about raising funds for performances of Michael Tippett and other potentially rebarbative composers. From this ordeal, he said, he escaped a few years later to the Kentucky Opera, run on Scottish Opera lines in the more congenial operatic climate of Louisville.

Now turning his attention to the genius of Gluck, he lured the London critics to come visiting and struck a new bond with Scottish Opera by buying its scintillatingly popular David Pountney production of Rimsky-Korsakov's Golden Cockerel, which scored a similar hit on the banks of the River Ohio.

He also renewed his friendship with Scottish Opera's musical director Alexander Gibson, with whom he presented a cycle of five Verdi operas, including Aida, Otello, and Falstaff, and launched an equally promising Puccini cycle cut short by Gibson's sudden death.

But Mr Smillie himself stayed on in Kentucky with his wife and four children, retiring after 15 years and much success to embark on a new career as author of a tireless series of books and opera guides, as a busy lecturer on cruise ships, and as an increasingly active freelance director, all over the US, of exquisitely lightweight comedies, ranging from Sullivan and Rossini to Britten's Albert Herring, at one time a Scottish Opera triumph in Anthony Besch's macho production.

In all these he proved he could have enjoyed an independent career as an operatic director, rather than administrator, even if, on one occasion, forgetfulness caused him to leave his briefcase full of production notes on Rossini's Cenerentola beneath the table of a Milan restaurant.

In 2003 his wife Anne died and he met Marilyn Meredith, soon to become his second wife (she had recently lost her husband), while both of them were receiving grief counselling.

The relationship clicked. On one of their many cruises, both of them arrived briefly in Edinburgh en route to Copenhagen. He died on January 18 of pulmonary fibrosis, a lung complaint akin to emphysema, which finally necessitated the use of an oxygen cylinder to keep him breathing.

He is survived by Marilyn, his four children, Jane, Jonathan, Julia, and David, all based in the US and with him when he died, and four grandchildren.

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