Jonathan Miller, Acclaimed Theater Director and Writer, Dies at 85


In 1986 he returned to Broadway to direct Jack Lemmon and a young Kevin Spacey in a revival of O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” notable for the overlapping dialogue that shortened its usual running time. And from 1988 to 1990, he was artistic director of the Old Vic, often reviving lesser-known classic drama and staging Jean Racine’s “Andromaque” and Pierre Corneille’s “Liar.”

But it was his production of Leo Janacek’s opera “The Cunning Little Vixen” at Glyndebourne in 1975 that proved to be truly career-changing. An unusually realistic “Figaro” for the English National Opera was followed by Britten’s “Turn of the Screw” and the “mafia” “Rigoletto,” set in 1950s New York, that triumphed in London in 1982 and at the Met in 1984.

Other international successes included a “Mikado” set partly in 1930s Hollywood, a Mussolini-period “Tosca” and, in St. Louis in 1982, a “Così Fan Tutte” that led The New York Times’s Donal Henahan to write that Mr. Miller was thinking more incisively than anybody about how to bring opera to modern audiences.

Production after production embodied what Mr. Miller had learned as a clinician. What brought them to life, he claimed, were tiny behavioral traits, like tapping a pencil, scratching an ear or, in the case of a diva expressing grief, simply twisting her hair and staring into the distance: “It’s my passionate, almost religious belief that it is in the negligible that the considerable is to be found,” he said.

Mr. Miller’s creative restlessness did not lessen with time. In 1991 he staged six operas in six cities, including Tel Aviv and Vienna. In 1993 his modern “Così,” with Mozart impeccably dressed by Armani, gave him a belated Covent Garden debut. The next decade saw him directing “The Cherry Orchard” in Sheffield, “Hamlet” in Bristol and Christopher Plummer as Lear in Stratford, Ontario, and at the Lincoln Center, as well as presenting television programs on subjects ranging from influenza to atheism and creating sculptures from found wood and scrap metal, one of which became the set for his revival of Stravinsky’s “Oedipus Rex” for Graz Opera.

In 2002 Mr. Miller was knighted “for services to music and the arts,” though, characteristically, he said he wished it had been for the services to science he had failed to deliver. Self-doubt and insecurity, along with bouts of depression, never left him, despite a 63-year marriage to Rachel Collett, who met Mr. Miller when they were both teenagers, herself became a practicing doctor.

In addition to his son William, he is survived by Ms. Collett; another son, Tom; and a daughter, Kate.

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