More than anyone in recent times, Ian Smith championed the comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan that had once dazzled and defined British musical theatre.
The founder of an international festival celebrating the partnership’s work, he had imbibed their high-Victorian silliness, sugary romance and earworm melodies from his mother, a keen amateur pianist and singer.
Born in Shipley, West Yorkshire, by the age of 10 Smith was being co-opted into productions featuring his soprano parent. Leaving school at 16, he worked as a journalist on the local paper and in various jobs in industry before setting up the British Sewing, Knitting and Needlecraft Association in 1974.
In the mid-1980s, he helped establish barcoding and biometrics as vital components in food traceability, playing a leading role in government inquiries following outbreaks of BSE (“mad cow disease”). Later, he diversified again to develop a global network of travel agents for his exhibitions and conferences business.
A keen performer, he founded the Gilbert and Sullivan-dedicated West Yorkshire Savoyards, appearing regularly with the company at home and abroad. His onstage career was cut short when he was caught in a grenade attack by the notorious terrorist Carlos the Jackal in Paris in the early 1980s. He survived the explosion but the loss of hearing he suffered in his left ear ended his performing career.
Instead, he dedicated himself to producing. In 1994 he mounted the first International Gilbert and Sullivan Festival in Buxton with the assistance of his son Neil. Blending competitive amateur productions with professional stagings, it expanded its reach in 2010 to the United States and more recently devised programmes for cruise ship itineraries in Europe and Africa.
Under Smith’s guidance, the festival also offered ancillary events and in recent years developed close relationships with Charles Court Opera and Forbear! Theatre. Based in Harrogate’s Royal Hall since 2014, it now presents 40 full productions by British and international companies featuring about 2,000 performers annually, all supported by the bespoke National Gilbert and Sullivan Orchestra Smith created.
Speaking of his life-long devotion, he said: “Gilbert and Sullivan has that rare quality of lifting the spirits, putting a skip in the step and making life just feel better [with its] glorious music, wonderful, witty dialogue and outstanding political satire which would not be out of place in today’s party-political spats.”
Ian Granville Smith was born on June 21, 1939 and died on November 22, 2019, aged 80. He is survived by his third wife, their three sons and two children from his first marriage.