Operatic ‘Billy Elliot’ is officially recognised for his outstanding musical contribution to the UK.

Durham-born, grammar school-educated, Sir Thomas Allen has been announced as the 2013 recipient of the Queen’s Medal for Music. Awarded since 2005, the medal is given annually to “an outstanding individual or group of musicians who have had a major influence on the musical life of the nation”. Previous winners include soprano Dame Emma Kirkby and bass-baritone Bryn Terfel.

“I was surprised and thrilled,” said 69-year-old Sir Thomas who was made a CBE in 1989 and knighted in 1999. “This very special award means so much to me and I’m very proud to have been selected.”

Born in Seaham, County Durham, Allen was first discovered in the 1960s when still at grammar school. Such was his upbringing, he has been frequently cited as the inspiration for the character of Billy Elliot, although Allen’s career was to be opera, not ballet. He went on to study at the Royal College of Music and made his stage debut with the Royal Opera House in a modest role as the sailor Donald in Billy Budd in 1971 (he would go on to be one of the centuries most renowned interpreters of that opera’s title role).

Sir Thomas as Billy Budd

Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the current Master of the Queen’s Music, paid tribute to Allen on the announcement: “Sir Thomas was a top opera singer who has become not only a top opera director but also a major force in outreach and musical education.”

He went on to praise Allen’s tireless philanthropic activities: “Through the Samling Foundation, he has carried out utterly selfless work for charity and, above all, for young people, and it is for this achievement of a lifetime that The Queen’s Medal for Music Committee felt so strongly persuaded to award him the Medal.”

Sir Thomas in a masterclass

Sir Thomas, who still performs, has been chancellor of Durham University since 2012. He directed his first opera production in 2003 and his masterclasses are legendary for their insight and enthusiasm.

The Queen will present the award at an audience later this year.