The choral scholar with a passion for opera — and a secret love of ABBA

On Christmas Eve, the gothic splendour of King’s College Chapel will swell with the sound of one of the world’s most famous choirs. Among the voices will be that of baritone Steve Whitford. He combines a busy schedule as choral scholar at King’s College with a degree in classics.

Steve Whitford in King’s College Chapel (Lloyd Mann)

My voice broke when I was about 12 years old — that’s pretty early. Initially I was kind of a basso profundo, a bass voice with the lowest range. It was fun to be making this surprisingly adult sound. But your voice changes as you develop and now I’m quite a high baritone.

There’s a way of classifying voices called the Fach system. It’s a German word for compartment and doesn’t refer just to pitch or range but to the ‘colour’ of your voice. At the moment, I suppose I’m a lyric baritone, which means I’m suited especially well to operas by Mozart, Rossini and Donizetti. This will probably change as I get older and my voice naturally ‘beefs up’.

Singing is strenuous — almost like a sport. You sing with your whole body right from your feet up. There are muscles which run the whole length of your body, so you have to make sure everything is working. When I’m singing well, my whole body gets a kind of buzz. Some singers are more afraid of a sprained ankle than getting a cold. Being a choral singer is a demanding discipline and a team sport all in one.

My parents aren’t particularly musical. But they wanted me and my two brothers to try music. I started piano lessons when I was about four. I don’t remember much apart from my teacher was called Katie and she told me to sit up straight.

I was born in Stockport near Manchester. Because of my dad’s job in shipping and oil, we moved to Indonesia, Malaysia and Illinois. When we came back to the UK we settled in Cheltenham. I went to a prep school where I also started to play the cello, and then I got academic and music scholarships to Dean Close School.

Our director of drama was inspirational. Lloyd Allington introduced me to opera, just as I was beginning to enjoy singing more. He gave me some CDs to take home and listen to — Verdi’s Otello and Puccini’s Tosca and La bohème. Right away I was hooked. They’re still my favourite operas.

At school I did a lot of acting as well as music. At one point I was in four plays in one term, and played parts that ranged from Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Emile in South Pacific. I now realise how helpful that was. As a choral singer, it’s easy to forget to perform the music, but if you want to make a career as a solo singer you need to know how to engage with an audience.

You apply to be a choral scholar after you have an offer for an academic course. Once I’d been offered a place to study classics, I was auditioned by Stephen Cleobury, director of music at King’s, who was really welcoming. I sang some Vaughan Williams and some Bach for him.

I adore King’s College Chapel. The first time I walked into it, I was 16 and had come to Cambridge to look around. What still amazes me is the combination of the Rubens painting behind the altar, the deep blues of the east window, and the way the great mass of the walls and ceiling seem to float there as if weightless. Unlike other churches, it’s almost always warm — there’s underfloor heating.

Choral scholars have a packed schedule. We sing at services seven days a week in term time and have hour-long rehearsals every day. There’s also the academic work to keep up with. It’s particularly tough if you’re doing science and have a lot of lab work, as some of the other guys are.

BBC television’s Carols from Kings is filmed early in December and broadcast on Christmas Eve. A Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols takes place on Christmas Eve itself and is broadcast live on BBC Radio 4. To save time, the BBC also films our Easter from King’s service in December. It’s always pretty full on, but really exciting.

There are 16 men in the choir — and about the same number of boy choristers. We’re a tight-knit group and spend so much time together that it’s sometimes hard to find space for other friends. The boy choristers are phenomenal. They address us formally — I’m Mr Whitford to them. It’s a reminder that we need to act grown up.

Luckily I don’t get very nervous — but it hasn’t all been plain sailing. I come from a close family and in my first year, I struggled with being away from home, with the choir commitments and with the classics course. Friends helped and gradually things got better. I really enjoy the classics course and have some amazing teachers.

Outside of the choir, the choral scholars are called the King’s Men. We do performances and produce CDs. We’re a student-run close harmony group and I’m the musical director. Our most recent CD is The Twelve Days of Christmas and our next one, out in February 2018, is called Love from King’s.

I love reading. Recently it’s been novels by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf which seem refreshingly modern if you’ve been studying Greek inscriptions all term. I read a lot of poetry too. Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes are two of my favourites.

Most contemporary music eludes me — I only hear it with friends. I love to dance to it, but I couldn’t tell you what the song is. I listen to a lot of jazz — especially Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald — and I have a secret love of catchy songs by ABBA and the Carpenters, which my mum used to play in the car on the way to school.

Ever since I was 16 I’ve wanted to make a career in opera. Once I’ve graduated I plan to take a gap year and live in Berlin so that I can learn German, which is pretty essential. At King’s I’ve had a wonderful musical training and now I feel ready to take the leap into the solo singing world.

This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.