Sir Jonathan Miller, the English theatre and opera director, has died from complications of Alzheimer’s disease at the age of 85. Widely regarded as something of a polymath, Miller first came to public attention as a comedian, before working as a television presenter and director. He was also known as a writer, broadcaster, lecturer and art historian.

Sir Jonathan Miller

Born on July 21, 1934, Miller studied medicine at Cambridge University, qualifying as a doctor in 1959. His path into the profession was diverted when he found fame in the early 1960s in the revue Beyond the Fringe, with his directorial debut following soon after with John Osborne’s Under Plain Cover in 1962. Championed by none other than Laurence Olivier, the founding artistic director of the National Theatre, Miller would go on to direct several acclaimed productions of Shakespeare’s plays. Among these was an iconic The Merchant of Venice, which saw Olivier in a career-defining turn as Shylock. During this period Miller also worked with the BBC, which saw him adapt plays for television and present cultural programs.  He would become Artistic Director of the Old Vic in 1987, where his programming was bold but not always critically well-received.

The 1970s saw Miller move into the world of opera, working first at Kent Opera and then at Glyndebourne. A production of The Marriage of Figaro for English National Opera in 1978 kicked off a four decade relationship, with his final staging for ENO of The Elixir of Love in 2010. Many of his productions would become staples of its repertoire, with his Mafia-style Rigoletto still being performed by ENO 28 years after its premiere. Although he would go on to direct operas in Vienna, Florence and Milan, it was not until 1995 that Miller was engaged by the Royal Opera House. His Così fan tutte for the company became a staple of its repertoire for close to two decades. Miller was knighted in 2002 for services to music and the arts.

“Jonathan Miller was one of the most important figures in British theatre and opera of the past half century,” said Oliver Mears, Director of Opera at the Royal Opera House. “Combining a supreme intellect with a consistently irreverent perspective, formed from his experiences in both comedy and medicine, Miller shone a unique light on our art form.”

“His intolerance of inauthenticity and laziness on stage was matched by the urgency and rigour of his search for the composer’s vision, historical accuracy and psychological truth – resulting in so many productions which have stood the test of time,” Mears said. “As artistic director of the Old Vic, he also gave some of our most brilliant practitioners their first chance – a legacy that lives on today. He will be sorely missed.”

Miller is survived by his wife Rachel and their three children.