One of the region's great stars, Sir Thomas Allen, talks to David Whetstone ahead of his weekend performance at Durham Cathedral.
LOOKING back over his 68 years, and in keeping with the festive season, Sir Thomas Allen says: “It’s just a fairy story, the whole of my life, in many ways.”
This is the lad from Seaham Harbour, born the year before the Second World War ended, who is now a world-renowned figure on the operatic stage and chancellor of Durham University.
He wants to qualify that opening assertion, though.
“Fairy stories happen in a twinkle because a fairy comes along and waves a wand. It wasn’t quite like that. A lot of hard work has been involved in doing what I’ve been doing for the last 40, nearly 50, years.
“You never stop learning; it’s an ongoing process. But this one came as a surprise.”
‘This one’ was the opportunity to be chancellor of one of the country’s most venerable universities – the one along the road from where he grew up.
“The letter that came with the proposal to put my name forward for this didn’t make any sense to me at all,” he says in earnest.
“I had to read it three times before it got through to me what I was being asked to do. I was blown sideways by it.”
Sir Thomas – Tom to many who know him – was installed as chancellor at a ceremony in June, draped in red, gold and black and with a gold-tasselled mortar board on his head.
This, at least, will not have fazed a man who has been dressed by some of the best wardrobe departments in the world.
But despite his status as a great and much-travelled artist, he wants to say how at ease he felt in academia.
“I’m sure there are some stuffy dons but they’re not all like that, by any means. I have felt very comfortable in their company.”
Widely regarded as one of the best lyric baritones of his generation, he will be doing what he does best when he joins Durham Cathedral Choir in a Christmas concert at the cathedral on Saturday.
He is no stranger to the venue, having sung there last year in the Carols of Light charity concert, sharing the billing with Rick Wakeman, Joe McElderry and others.
His first Durham Cathedral concert, he recalls, was in the 1970s when local choral societies joined forces in a bid to raise the roof. Then there were “some big Geordie concerts” that stick in his mind.
They’re beautiful buildings, cathedrals. But not always especially obliging if you are trying to make yourself heard and understood by an audience or congregation.
“It’s always the problem with these buildings,” says the man who knows. “In St Paul’s the echo goes on for about 10 seconds.
“For many years I was involved in some fund-raising for Cancer Research UK and every second year we did a concert in St Paul’s. Some big names came along and sang or read some prose.
“All were advised by the clergy what speed they should read at because everything gets swept up towards the ceiling. But once a lot of thesps got up there you couldn’t stop them. I remember Ian McKellen ...”