COUNTY Durham-born opera star Sir Thomas Allen said his appointment as the new chancellor of Durham University felt like a “homecoming”.

Sir Thomas, 67, who was born in Seaham Harbour and has received worldwide acclaim for his performances, will officially become the university’s 12th chancellor when he takes over from awardwinning author Bill Bryson in January.

His appointment was approved at a meeting of Durham’s Convocation – an assembly of members of the university – in London last night.

Sir Thomas’s route to musical stardom began in the Sixties when, as a pupil at Robert Richardson Grammar School, in Ryhope, near Sunderland, his talent was recognised and encouraged by physics teacher Dennis Weatherley.

The headteacher arranged for the then 18-year-old to visit Professor Arthur Hutchings, of Durham University’s music department, who arranged an interview for him at the Royal College of Music.

Sir Thomas’s career began with the Welsh National Opera and on his debut he was described as “surely the best British lyric baritone singing in opera since the war”.

He has since performed to thousands of people around the world, in leading roles such as Mozart’s Don Giovanni and at theatres including the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera.

According to the playwright Lee Hall, Sir Thomas’ remarkable story was the inspiration for his hit film Billy Elliott, about a boy who came from a pit community in County Durham to dance Swan Lake.

Sir Thomas said: “As a County Durham boy, I am extremely proud and honoured to be appointed as chancellor of Durham University. No matter where my life and career have taken me, Durham has always held a special place in my heart, so it is a particular privilege for me to accept this prestigious role.

“I am thrilled to be ‘coming home’ and I greatly look forward to meeting the students, staff and alumni at Durham and representing this magnificent university around the world.”

Sir Thomas is directing The Barber of Seville for Scottish Opera. He will become Chancellor in January, which will also coincide with the 40th anniversary of his association with the Royal Opera House.

Professor Chris Higgins, vice-chancellor of Durham University, said: “Sir Thomas Allen really is a local boy made good. His achievements as an artist, in education, and as a dedicated supporter of so many good causes, make him the perfect choice to be the new chancellor of Durham University.

“He perfectly illustrates that with talent, drive and ambition you can achieve your goals and I am sure he will prove an inspiration to all Durham students and a marvellous ambassador for the university.”