Les Dennis, the comedian-turned-quiz show host-turned-actor-turned-stage musical performer, is to tackle opera for the first time in a new production of HMS Pinafore.
English National Opera on Wednesday announced a 2021/22 season which will feature its first ever production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comedy classic. Artistic director Annilese Miskimmon said Dennis was a talented singer who “completely blew us away in the audition process”. He will star as the upwardly mobile Sir Joseph, “ruler of the Queen’s navy” whose songs include When I was a Lad.
Dennis, whose career has gone from the finest Mavis Riley impressions to hosting Family Fortunes and becoming a regular on Coronation Street, will get an early taste of the ENO’s vast London Coliseum stage when he also appears in the musical Hairspray for a three-month run from July.
The ENO announced a season with four new productions and three revivals designed, it said, “to delight aficionados and newcomers alike”. The new productions include a contemporarily staged version of Janáček’s The Cunning Little Vixen; Danish composer Poul Ruders’ 2000 opera based on Margaret Atwood’s dystopian The Handmaid’s Tale (a work previously staged at ENO in 2003); and the already announced The Valkyrie by Wagner – the beginning of an ENO Ring Cycle directed by Richard Jones that will unfold over the next five years.
Joe Hill-Gibbins’ new production of Marriage of Figaro, abandoned after only one performance in March last year when lockdown restrictions came into force, will not be revived this coming season however, nor will there be the chance to see the production of Rusulka that had been due to open later that same month.
Miskimmon joined the company from Oslo last year. She said: “To join the ENO at such a turbulent time for the industry has been a privilege. I have been blown away by the energy and commitment to the company and the fabulous freelance talent we work with.”
The company said 90% of the cast in the season were British, British-based or British-trained, “continuing the ENO’s commitment to support and nurture homegrown talent”.
The season, which begins in October, features 67 performances – fewer than normal. The company is one of the Arts Council’s National portfolio organisations, and in 2020/21 received a grant of £12.38m and an £8.5m loan from the cultural recovery fund.
ENO chief executive Stuart Murphy said the company should be judged on more than simply the number of shows it puts on the stage of the Coliseum, “as proud of it as we are”. He stressed that accessibility was at ENO’s core, pointing to a free tickets for under 21-year-olds scheme, and the training it offered the industry, as well as its efforts during the pandemic such as a drive-in opera at Alexandra Palace, concerts broadcast on national TV and contributions to Comic Relief.