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Les Dennis is to make his opera debut in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore at the London Coliseum.
English National Opera said that Dennis beat seasoned opera performers to the role, although his previous singing experience has been confined to West End musicals.
The comedian, actor and former host of Family Fortunes will play Sir Joseph Porter, 1st Lord of the Admiralty in the production, part of a new season marking ENO’s return to live performances.
Annilese Miskimmon, ENO’s artistic director, defended the casting and said Dennis “blew us away” in a series of auditions.
“I can say that Les was put through a rigorous audition process and proved himself against considerable competition,” she said.
“In the same way that Mozart had Schikaneder as his Papageno - a well-known comic actor of his day - in an opera production [The Magic Flute], it’s a melding of these worlds in a really fabulous way and something a traditional operatic audience and a new audience will enjoy a lot. So we can’t wait to have him here.”
Asked if Dennis really can sing, Miskimmon replied: “I’m afraid like everyone else in the cast you’re going to have to come along to find out.”
Dennis will also appear at the Coliseum this summer in a production of Hairspray.
ENO has been keen to harness the power of celebrity under its chief executive, Stuart Murphy.
Miskimmon was speaking at the launch of ENO’s 2021-22 season. HMS Pinafore, which opens in October, will be the first Gilbert and Sullivan production in the company’s history.
Other highlights include Wagner’s The Valkyrie, the first production in a new Ring Cycle to be staged over the next five years, and a revival of Jonathan Miller’s acclaimed production of La boheme.
In an effort to broaden ENO’s audience, every performance will include free tickets for under-21s at all levels of the house. Murphy said he hoped the scheme would give people “a taste of opera at an early age so they catch the opera bug”.