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What It's Really Like to Have Dinner with Queen Elizabeth — and Her Unexpected Lipstick Move!

People logo People 4/24/2019 Liz McNeil
Elizabeth II wearing glasses and smiling at the camera: What It's Really Like to Have Dinner with Queen Elizabeth (and Her Unexpected Lipstick Move!) © Provided by TIME Inc. What It's Really Like to Have Dinner with Queen Elizabeth (and Her Unexpected Lipstick Move!)

When singer Dennis McNeil got a call two months ago with an invitation to sing for the Queen Elizabeth, “I couldn’t breathe,” he tells PEOPLE.

“I thought she’s seen everything,” notes the Los Angeles-based tenor. “What could I sing that would move her?”

McNeil, 58, received the invitation from Robert “Woody” Johnson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, and his wife, Suzanne, to perform at Winfield House, the official home of the Ambassador.

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“We reached out to the palace for her musical tastes, and her Lady in Waiting informed us she loves show tunes,” says McNeil, “especially show tunes from Oklahoma.”

The intimate dinner, which took place last month, had about 20 guests, along with the guest of honor Queen Elizabeth.  “She was lovely and radiant,” he says. “She was dressed in a silver gown that shimmered. She is an itty bitty thing, but she does not come off as itty bitty. She has such grace and strength.”

a woman wearing a hat and glasses: Toby Melville/PA/ABACA © Provided by TIME Inc. Toby Melville/PA/ABACA

“There wasn’t a receiving line,” he recalls. “She worked her way through the room, and we stood and chit-chatted.”

“She spoke of the first opera she heard, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, when she was 8 years old,” he says. “Her mother took her along with her sister Margaret. I don’t think it was an opera that captured her or her sister’s sense of humor. I joked with her that Wagner’s music isn’t as bad as it sounds.”

“Then I realized this wasn’t just any family outing. She later said as an aside: ‘Of course, it was the re-opening of Covent Garden, so I suppose we had to be there.’ “

a man wearing a suit and tie: Dennis McNeil © Provided by TIME Inc. Dennis McNeil

The conversation was casual. “At one point we were chatting about knee replacements and hip replacements,” he says laughing. “How we got there, I don’t know. I think another guest had just announced they’d gotten a hip replacement.”

“She’s a great lover of music,” he says. “She mentioned how she wished more singable songs were written today. The kind of tunes you can hum along to.”

a group of people wearing costumes: Queen Elizabeth | DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock © DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock Queen Elizabeth | DAVID HARTLEY/REX/Shutterstock

His first song that night was Rodgers and Hammerstein‘s Some Enchanted Evening from South Pacific. “I set it up by proposing a toast — a tribute to our hosts, the Ambassador and Mrs. Johnson, for providing us with such an enchanting evening.” (McNeil, who has performed for five U.S. presidents, sung for the Ambassador before, at last year’s annual Thanksgiving service at Saint Paul’s Cathedral.)

During the song, he was tickled to see the Queen pull out her signature purse. “She took out her lipstick,” he notes. “And as I sang, she applied a fresh coat of lipstick and I just thought ‘That is so warm and so human.’ “

He then sang It Had To Be You. “I’m told she was tapping her feet to that one,” he says. “Afterwards, one of the guests said that she leaned over to him and said, ‘So nice to hear real music.’ “

The next song was Oh What a Beautiful Morning. “A lot of people in the room sang along, including the Queen,” he says. “That was really cool.”

a group of people that are standing in the rain holding an umbrella: Queen Elizabeth spotted with the signature purse | Gareth Fuller - PA Images/PA Images via Getty © Gareth Fuller - PA Images/PA Images via Getty Queen Elizabeth spotted with the signature purse | Gareth Fuller - PA Images/PA Images via Getty

For the last song, McNeil and fellow guest Welsh singer songwriter Katherine Jenkins, sang Time to Say Goodbye (once recorded by Andrea Bocelli and Celine Dion).

And so it was. As the Queen said goodbye, says McNeil, “She said the music was delightful.”

“As the car started to pull away, she gave that trademark wave through the window,” he recalls. “It was pretty phenomenal. I couldn’t sleep that night. It was a Cinderella kind of night. I never wanted the evening to end.”

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