Thomson Smillie, who led the Kentucky Opera to become one of the nation’s leading regional opera companies, died at 10:30 Saturday night at his home. He was 71.
A native Scotsman, Smillie came to Louisville in 1981, where he spent a year working with the Kentucky Opera’s founder, Moritz Bomhard, before taking the reigns as Mr. Bomhard’s successor in 1980.
Over the following 15 years, Smillie’s tenure as general director would gain national acclaim for his innovations and creativity. He also became well known in Louisville for his radio broadcasts about opera, which regularly aired on WUOL, one of WFPL’s sister stations. (You can hear some of his contributions here.) After he left the opera company in 1997, he worked as a freelance director, writer, lecturer and development consultant.
Smillie was born in Glasgow on Sept. 29, 1942. He recently recalled: “I won first prize in the lottery of life. I had an extremely happy childhood and my parents were devoted to one another and to me and to my two brothers, and we grew up in a nice flat in Glasgow.
“My love of music derived from the fact that my mother, in particular, my father to a lesser extent, would buy 78s of Caruso and things and later, of course, for that great middle class symbol the Radiogram. So I grew up listening to quite a lot of what we would not call popular light classical music, excerpts from Verdi and things, and I’ve always loved music.”
He became especially fond of Gilbert and Sullivan when he was in his early teens. “When other boys were discovering sex in a big way, I memorized all 13 of the Gilbert and Sullivan operas, most of which I can recite in large part to this day,” he said.
Glasgow to Boston to Louisville
At Glasgow University, he joined a society that regularly presented productions of the Gilbert and Sullivan repertoire. After graduation, he worked briefly in a publishing house and then as an advertising copywriter. But his college work in operetta brought him to the attention of one of the leaders of the Scottish Opera, Peter Hemmings. In 1966, he began a three-month trial doing publicity for a production of Benjamin Britten opera “Peter Grimes,” an experience that led to a lifelong career in the world of opera.
His career in Glasgow allowed him to try all sorts of things, but he found that he was adept at a skill that is good as gold for arts leaders: He had a gift for fund raising. He also had a gift of gab, which enabled him in 1973 to persuade the board of the Wexford Festival in Ireland to hire him as artistic director.
He continued there for five seasons, gaining a reputation not only for his knack at raising funds and creating publicity, but also for the excellence of his productions. Among those who had supported his career early on was Sir Alexander Gibson, the famed opera director and conductor who founded Scottish opera. It was he who told Sarah Caldwell, the legendary founder of the Boston Opera about the young Scotsman.
Caldwell, who appeared on the cover of Time with the headline “Music’s Wonder Woman,” was notoriously imperious.
She was also a terrible boss to work for. And finding Boston chilly and the schools a problem, Smillie’s wife, Anne, and their children had fled for their native Scotland. It was a low point in his life. In time, Caldwell dismissed Smillie, an event that would lead, a few months later, to his being hired by Kentucky Opera.
In Louisville, the opera board had decided that after more than 30 years at the helm it was time for founding director Moritz Bomhard to step down. Seeking new blood, they turned to the 38-year-old Thomson Smillie, who spent his first year in Kentucky working as associate director with Bomhard. In 1982, he launched his first season as the head man with a lavish production of Gluck’s “Alceste,” which gained national attention—and also ran $85,000 over budget, something Smillie would learn from and avoid.
He and his board—which included Christy Brown, Diane Mayer, Vincenzo Gabrielli, the late James Welch Sr., and other civic stalwarts—became determined to do important work, and to also make it fun. The centerpiece of the Opera year socially was Hardscuffle, an all-day steeplechase at the Oldham County farm of Squire Dinwiddie Lampton. Although the event had been originated before Smillie’s arrival, he and his wife threw themselves into it with gusto. (Mrs. Smillie and the children had moved to Louisville just a few months after Thomson took the job with Kentucky Opera, and as it happens, they were this writer’s neighbors for nearly a decade.)
The day, which Smillie would recall many years later, seemed to be lifted from the Edwardian era with fine clothing, good music and delicious food. One year the event was highlighted by the arrival of the Oldham County sheriff, who decided to crack down on the dispensing of liquor in that “dry” county. The episode made headlines—and added luster to the opera company’s public relations efforts.
A Young Siegfried
Early in his tenure, Smillie received some advice from Humana founder David A. Jones Sr.: “Make no small plans.”
He would follow that for the rest of his career.
The year Smillie arrived in Louisville, the budget of Kentucky Opera was just about $1 million. The productions often looked cheap because their funds were so limited. In his first year at Kentucky Opera, Smillie, working in tandem with board chairperson Christy Brown, doubled that amount, largely based on their individual “dog and pony shows” for corporate leaders and bankers around town.
In his Boston days, Smillie had learned from a particularly generous donor that if he could make a case, he would get the money he requested. Louisville had a history of providing support for artistic innovation. The Louisville Orchestra’s series of new music and their recordings had been nationally celebrated. Actors Theatre’s Humana Festival of New American Plays would send numerous shows off to Broadway, Hollywood and Pulitzer Prizes. Smillie recalled his own innovations:
“There is a great virtue being a young Siegfried. Young Siegfried (the title character in Wagner’s opera) is too stupid to know fear, so he does things in his early years that he would never have the guts to do later.”
For instance, in the 1980s Louisville had a series of issues with the stagehands union, whose leader was feared by the arts companies because he ran the production “with a rod of iron.” Smillie came in one night and he had been drinking heavily. “I said, ‘If you do that again, I’ll fire you,’ and the shock ran round the company.” The next night the union boss was drunk again, and Smillie fired him. “If I tried to do it now, I’d have the book thrown at me, but in those days I was so cocky that it never occurred to me that anybody would dare to question my word.”
At roughly the same time his career with Kentucky Opera began, the new Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts opened on Main Street, bringing with it much greater costs for productions (and eventually higher ticket prices, too). Bomhard had opposed the construction of the center, but in time the smaller of the two theaters would be named in his honor. Generally the opera productions were expected to be produced in the larger hall, named for longtime Louisville Orchestra conductor Robert Whitney. But realizing the expense of a big auditorium, not to mention scenery, orchestra and the like, Smillie decided to put on productions either in the smaller Bomhard Theatre or on Broadway at the Macauley (now W.L. Lyons Brown) Theatre.
Following the expensive production of “Alceste,” Smillie made a bold decision. He decided to cancel the next scheduled opera, “The Flying Dutchman,” and instead produced Benjamin Britten’s adaptation of the Henry James novella “The Turn of the Screw.” With a cast of seven and a simple set, the opera was a major success. In time, the same theory held true over the years for settings of “Dido and Aenaes” by Purcell, “Peter Grimes” and “Billy Budd” by Britten, and many of the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Smillie would also take pride in his commitment to present all of Verdi’s operas over the course of his time in Louisville. He participated in a co-production of George Gershwin’s “Porgy and Bess” with several other companies, which was a major local success and for the first time drew significant black audiences to the opera here.
Louisville’s modest company was getting attention nationally. When Smillie joined the board of Opera America, he came into contact with his counterparts nationally, including Beverly Sills. In time he would become vice chairman of the organization, giving Kentucky Opera even more prestige and exposure. By the 1990s, when Opera magazine did a survey to determine the best companies in America, Kentucky Opera ranked 15 among some 90 opera organization. Not a small accomplishment.
Smillie was a pioneer in other areas. His was one of the first companies in America to use subtitles, screened above the stage translating the opera into English. Himself an accomplished linguist, Smillie would write the translations of many operas himself. With the support of Brown-Forman, he introduced “dress rehearsals” in which the company would perform a preview of the opera for an audience composed of distillery employees. It became a huge success.
Always a robust and entertaining speaker, Smillie and members of his company did innumerable fund-raising cocktail parties and teas. And tens of thousands of young Kentuckians were exposed to opera through his traveling Opera-Go-Round, which provided short adaptations of works like “The Mikado” and then questions and answers.
After he left the opera company, Smillie continued to entertain audiences—on shipboard—as a popular lecturer on the world great cruise lines. He also was a prolific writer, producing a monthly commentary for Louisville magazine. His first wife, Anne, died, and 10 years ago he remarried the engaging Marilyn Meredith, who, along with his four children Jane, Jonathan, David and Julia survive him.
A funeral Mass is planned for 1:30 p.m. Thursday at the Cathedral of the Assumption, where Smillie had been deeply involved in the renovation and the annual Festivals of Faiths. At 3:30 p.m., a memorial service featuring words and music will celebrate his life at the Brown Theatre, where the stage is named in his honor.
Keith L. Runyon was a longtime editor and writer for The Courier-Journal. For the last five months he has worked closely with Thomson Smillie on a memoir to be entitled Impresario: Thomson Smillie and the Kentucky Opera. He appears on WFPL most Thursdays at 1:35 p.m. with Jonathan Bastian during Here & Now and his commentaries appear at WFPL.org.