‘I’ve had to keep changing’: Les Dennis on his move into opera

When the comedian and actor Les Dennis played Uncle Fester in the Addams Family UK tour in 2017, the Guardian wrote of his “long, strange trip” of a career taking “another left turn”.

“And I am proud of those left turns” says Dennis, who is about to make the most surprising change of direction yet with his opera debut a la edad de 67, a prospect leaving him not a little excited – and daunted.

“I am always nervous. I always have that impostor syndrome,” he adds of being cast as the upwardly mobile Sir Joseph Porter, “ruler of the Queen’s navy”, en el English National Opera’s production of the Gilbert and Sullivan comedy classic HMS Pinafore at the London Coliseum.

When Dennis made his RSC debut two years ago, “on the first day of rehearsals I thought: bien, everybody is going to have been to drama school, and I’ve come from the working men’s clubs and the cabaret and summer season circuit. Am I going to get found out? But I found at the RSC all these trained actors were lovely, and welcomed me. And I am hoping I will find the same in the opera world.”

No one is more surprised than Dennis at landing the comic baritone part of Sir Joseph for the run in October. "Sí, it’s good to take people by surprise, and take myself equally by surprise. So on that opening night I will be excited, nervous, and know that people will be going ‘ah, let’s see’.”

Dennis, erstwhile television quiz show host and Coronation Street cast member, is already experienced in musical theatre, and is due to appear in Hairspray, also at the Coliseum, desde 21 junio.

But opera was not on his tick list until Cal McCrystal, who is directing the production, suggested he audition. The artistic director, Annilese Miskimmon, said he “completely blew us away in the audition process”. He was hired on the spot.

“I got the job in the room. I was just: ‘Oh, woah, OK. This never happens,” says Dennis. “Normal procedure is they say thank you very much, we’ll let you know, then you sit waiting for the phone to ring.” He was in a bit of a daze afterwards.

Though he has singing lessons – since the pandemic these have consisted of his singing teacher setting him exercises to perform alone at home – like all performers he wonders how so long off stage will affect his performance, though he did manage to appear in pantomime over Christmas. He will find out the answer when HMS Pinafore rehearsals properly start in September.

Will gargling help? “Not sure," él dice. He’s not even sure yet if opera singers are miked on stage. “I’m sure I’ll get tips from the people I’m working with. I loved Tom Jones on the radio recently when he was asked if he needed to warm up, and he just coughed and said ‘I’m ready’. I do a little more than that.

“Every night in Hairspray we will be doing a vocal warmup, so I hope that will improve the muscles. It is a muscle, and we’ve not been using it – anybody that is on stage, that is.”

Though he has never performed Gilbert and Sullivan he is familiar with their work and is relishing playing Sir Joseph, whose songs include When I Was a Lad.

“I love the idea that this is a man who has never been to sea. It’s a satire on class, on party politics and on people who are not qualified for jobs. So he is this guy who has polished up the handle of the big front door, and polished it so well that he’s become the ruler of the Queen’s navy. I love it. I think it’s very funny.”

When people ask Dennis what he considers to be his biggest achievement, “I actually say it’s the fact that I am still here," él dice. “If I’d been doing the cabaret circuit or the club circuit or the Saturday night telly that was around in the 80s, I wouldn’t be around any more, because those shows have fallen by the wayside. So I have had to keep changing.”

His ever-expanding portfolio will also include his first movie lead role when the dark comedy Sideshow, in which he plays “an ageing past-his-prime sidekick”, is released in the UK this autumn.

So are the days of his famous Mavis Riley impressions long gone? "Bien, it always comes up at some point," él dice. “But I don’t think there’s room for it in the Sir Joseph canon.”

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