Interview: Sir Thomas Allen ahead of his performance at Durham Cathedral

ONE of the region's great stars, Sir Thomas Allen, talks to David Whetstone ahead of his weekend performance at Durham Cathedral.

Sir Thomas Allen

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 ...”

The actor, also a sir these days, may have been talking over everyone’s heads but I bet he was worth watching.

That’s a thing you can say of Sir Thomas Allen, too. Complementing the wonderful voice is an expressive face and a natural and easy acting style.

Who would have thought it? “I didn’t act at school or study opera at the college I went to but it came up fairly early in my career,” he says.

“I watched my colleagues and learned from them, seeing how they were able to get around a stage. You either fit in very quickly or you struggle, and I found I fit in quite easily.”

Sir Thomas was delighted to hear Lee Hall once say that he had been the inspiration for Billy Elliot, the working class kid who bridges a social chasm to hit the big time in the arts – opera in Thomas’s case, ballet in Billy’s.

The opera star happily attributes a good deal of his success to Ryhope Grammar School, where he studied from 1955 to 1964.

He was a good sportsman but the physics master, Denis Weatherley, who was also a singer, spotted the boy’s vocal potential and gave him singing lessons in lunch breaks.

In due course he was sent to see Arthur Hutchings, professor of music at Durham University. “He got me an audition to the Royal College of Music which was an early taste of auditions.”

Young Thomas breezed it. Nerves, he says, can hit any singer, sometimes at unexpected times, but as a young man who sang, once singing he was fine.

He made his Covent Garden debut in 1971 in Benjamin Britten’s opera, Billy Budd – appropriate for a man who would one day inspire Billy Elliot.

Nowadays, he explains, he wears several hats. There’s his tasselled Durham University affair but there’s also the metaphorical headgear he sports as singer, director and teacher.

“I’ve just come back from doing some classes in Belgium and before that I was directing an opera in Chicago,” he says.

“I’m not as busy as I used to be as a singer but I’m still singing. I have a concert here in London shortly and I’m singing at Glyndebourne and at a new production at the Met (New York) in two years’ time.

“I have a rich variety of things that I’m doing and I think I’m enjoying it more than ever. There’s no pressure on me. I’ve got nothing to prove.”

He is the latest in a string of high- profile figures from the arts world to hold the Durham University chancellorship – after Bill Bryson, Peter Ustinov and Margot Fonteyn – but the first who was born in the region.

“I think there’s always that thing of being a prophet without honour in your own land,” he says.

“It was years before I started to do any concerts with Northern Sinfonia, for example. They were careful to overlook me for a long time.”

That was then and this is now. Sir Thomas, made a CBE in 1989 and knighted 10 years later, will be spending time in Devon over Christmas with his wife, Jeannie, but both know they are welcomed and applauded in the North East these days.

And there’s a chance to hear the fabulous voice at Durham Cathedral on Saturday. The concert, at 7.30pm, also features Prince Bishops Brass. Tickets from the Gala Theatre: 0191 332 4041 or www.galadurham.co.uk

 
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