Thomas Quasthoff: A Mighty 'Voice' Soars
In his new memoir, The Voice, the German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff tackles his trials and his triumphs. He has a lot of each.
His triumphs consist of a burnished, burgundy-colored voice that soars, earning him three Grammy Awards and a datebook filled with engagements through 2015, singing with the top orchestras and conductors in the world. Quastoff's voice has been billed as "capable of packing the entire world's suffering into a few notes."
His trials may have something to do with that assessment. From his book, here's how the 48-year-old singer candidly describes himself, gazing into a mirror, the morning before his New York debut: "Here is a 4-foot, 3-inch concert singer without knee joints, arms or upper thighs, with only four fingers on the right hand and three on the left. He has a receding hairline, a blond pig head and a few too many pounds around his hips."
Quasthoff's physical disabilities are the result of a once-prescribed drug called thalidomide that his mother (and many others at the time) took while pregnant.
Quasthoff's story is heartbreaking in the early years, from his three-year stay in the hospital after birth (trapped behind glass, unable to be with his family for fear of infections) to his first experience with education, spent in a frightening boarding school for the mentally and physically disabled. As a self-pitying teenager, he ran away from home.
But Quasthoff was musical, even as a kid. He soaked up the sounds of bluesmen such as Robert Johnson and gospel outfits like the Golden Gate Quartet, as well as classical music. A persistent father finally found someone to give his son voice lessons, and finally, as he explains in his book, Quasthoff got his first recital.
"The audience did, in fact, whisper and look rather dumbfounded. But that's no surprise — they've never seen anything like me on a concert stage before. A Lilliputian tot without arms, jerking around in front of the podium because his legs are squeezed into splints. But as soon as my baritone rolled through Carl Loewe's majestic ballad "Prinz Eugen," there was silence in the auditorium. It soon became amazement, and by the end it was sheer enthusiasm. ... No one expects such a mighty voice to issue from my diminutive frame."
Enthusiasm now follows Quasthoff wherever he performs. He records for the prestigious Deutsche Grammophon label, and next month, he'll sing Franz Schubert's song cycle Die Schone Mullerin with pianist Daniel Barenboim in Berlin.
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