‘Take it from me. Dying is a full-time business. No time for a lap of honour’

Norman Lebrecht recalls the conversations with his friend, the distinguished theatre and opera director Jonathan Miller has died aged 85

November 27, 2019 18:54

The first thing you’d see in Jonathan Miller was self-doubt. “I should have stuck to being a doctor,” he’d say, before hanging up your coat. Or: “The theatre’s pretty worthless, isn’t it?” 

We both got banned from the Metropolitan Opera — he for disrespecting divas and I for other iconoclasms — and we recognised in each other the eternal outsider, as well as the introspection. The son of a psychiatrist, he wore neuroses on his sleeve and never lost his sense of wonder at the diversity of the human condition.

“I went into medicine out of cold-hearted curiosity about how the brain worked,” he’d reflect. “I suspect theatre is morally — no, intellectually — less worthy.” 

His father, Emanuel Miller, was a pioneer in child psychiatry with a keen interest in social reform. His mother, Betty Miller, was a witty novelist, a friend of Olivia Manning. “My mother was bored with her Jewish origins,” he’d tell me, “my father was much more immersed in it.”

The house in St John’s Wood was a hub of ideas. “I get called Renaissance man or polymath,” Jonathan would sigh, “my father did these things because he was a civilized fellow.” Talking of his mother’s early decline with Alzheimer’s, undiagnosed by father or son, he confessed to an irresoluble guilt.

As a schoolboy at St Paul’s he formed enduring friendships with the future neurologist Oliver Sacks and the bibliomane Eric Korn. He scorned trivial talk. His grandchildren came to realise that every contact with him was an act of observation and of learning.

At Cambridge he messed with theatre revues, graduating to Beyond the Fringe with Alan Bennett, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. After two years as a houseman at the Middlesex Hospital, he went into TV as editor of the BBC’s Monitor series, and into theatre, directing a John Osborne play and a dozen Shakespeares with Laurence Olivier.   

Opera entered his life in the 1970s when the conductor Roger Norrington, who lived in the same artists’ colony around Camden Town, asked if he’d take a look at a Mozart score. Jonathan said, “I don’t read music.” That’s all right, said Roger, “I do.”

His landmark shows were a Verdi Rigoletto at English National Opera, reset among New York Mafiosi, and a Mozart Cosi fan tutte at Covent Garden. A late-onset Puccini Bohème at ENO has yet to receive full recognition for its brilliant resetting of the plot in 1930s Paris, the monochrome city of Brassai and Kertesz. Jonathan claimed to have discovered time-shift in opera. “Like Einstein?” I teased him.

He deplored opera’s dependence on what he called Jurassic Park singers — “the heavy names that don’t arrive until three or four days before you go on stage and say, ‘hey, Jonathan, where you want me to stand?’” — but the ones who listened learned a lot from him. He taught Angela Georghiu how to die in La Traviata. “I said to her: ‘Take it from me, I’m a doctor. Dying is a full-time business. You haven’t time to do a lap of honour. Chances are you’re incontinent, anyway. Do stay in bed.’"

“You’re being very Jewish,” he’d chide when I taxed him about God, adding: “I never withdrew from identification with Jews because it mattered so much to antisemites that they committed the Holocaust. But I feel Jewish only in the presence of antisemitism. In addition to being Jew-ish, I suppose I’m chimpanzee-ish in terms of ancestry.”

With young singers he was gentle as can be, teasing out what they might bring to a role, waiting in silence as a therapist might until they found a suppressed memory. He hated to be watched at work, especially in rehearsal, insisting on Hippocratic confidentiality. I got the impression that he envied Sacks his questing contact with interesting patients.

He claimed to own 2,000 books on the history of art and to read Noam Chomsky for light relief. He had a restless mind, rarely settling on a topic for more than five minutes before flitting to something more colourful — botany, baroque music, microbiology. What he liked best was to be challenged and to argue, wriggling like a Hampstead Pond urchin if you caught him in self-contradiction.  

What I am trying to convey is that he was fun, and kind, and warm. The last time I left his house it was gone 11 on a freezing night and only drug dealers were still out at Camden Town. Jonathan insisted on taking me to the bus stop for my safety, before walking back home, alone.

November 27, 2019 18:54

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