Thomas Quasthoff: A Mighty 'Voice' Soars

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Bass baritone Thomas Quasthoff i i

hide captionQuasthoff details his story of artistry and perseverance in his new memoir, The Voice.

Kasskara/Deutsche Grammphon
Bass baritone Thomas Quasthoff

Quasthoff details his story of artistry and perseverance in his new memoir, The Voice.

Kasskara/Deutsche Grammphon

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Thomas Quasthoff is applauded by Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra. i i

hide caption"No one expects such a mighty voice to issue from my diminutive frame," bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff writes. Above, Quasthoff is applauded by Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra.

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Thomas Quasthoff is applauded by Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra.

"No one expects such a mighty voice to issue from my diminutive frame," bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff writes. Above, Quasthoff is applauded by Spanish tenor Placido Domingo and the Vienna Symphonic Orchestra.

Dieter Nagl/AFP/Getty Images

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.

Excerpt: 'The Voice'

Book Cover of "The Voice"

Performing music is not unlike rock climbing. Before you begin you check your gear super-carefully: Does the tailcoat have to be ironed again? Is the hanky beautifully folded? Would the white turtleneck be better today, or the black one? Are the patent leather shoes shining? Where are the black socks, and where is the bloody comb? Then you review the score mentally, concentrating on the difficult ridges, gorges, and overhanging rocks. Finally, you need a strengthening refreshment. Not exactly "six eggs, sunny side up, with hot cocoa," the kind of thing Anderl Heckmair would put away before fastening his bundle and climbing across the wall of Eigernord. No, something easily digestible that won't turn your stomach into a stone pit encroaching on your diaphragm. For me, a few cookies usually suffice, rinsed down with juice or water.

After the snack comes the most important preparation of all: warming up the voice. I once again jump into a hot shower, for nothing massages the voice better than sultry air full of warm droplets. The vocal stretching lasts a half hour or forty-five minutes, depending on the repertoire. For higher parts, like Mahler's Wunderhorn Lieder, it takes a little bit longer.

At four o'clock sharp Micha comes to help me don my professional attire. Though not absolutely necessary—I can usually manage by myself—it simplifies the procedure. Unlike me, he is able to crouch with ease to peer beneath the tables, cabinets, and dressers that combs, shoehorns, and socks have a way of retreating to just before a concert. You know the axiom—"Things disappear when you need them most." What treacherous law of life is behind this I have never made out, and unfortunately, neither has science. Probably all efforts to solve this problem are quashed by lobbyists of the textile and accessories industries.

"Got one!" My brother is triumphantly waving a sock when Linda Marder calls. Blond, capable, roughly my age, Linda is my New York agent and a truly cool person. Together with her colleague Charles Cumella, she sits in a small office on Ninety-sixth Street and handles all my business between Boston and San Francisco. They take care of good—i.e, artistically interesting— engagements and, more important, reject the bad ones. They coordinate PR, negotiate contracts, and make sure I am decently compensated. They even find the least taxing flight connections and book convenient hotels for my tours. In short, Linda and Charles make sure that I am okay and that no one takes advantage of me. As one says here, they do a very good job.

Linda reminds me of the New York Philharmonic's request that I make myself available after the concert for the so-called ten-minute smile, a euphemism disguising a uniquely American triathlon. Exercise number one: thirty minutes of hand shaking; exercise number two: forty minutes of small talk; and finally, the dinner obstacle course, complete with asparagus hurdles, a maze of cutlery, and a squadron of boiled lobster. In the United States cultural institutions don't get a single cent from public funds but get by entirely on sponsors, donations, and entrance fees. That means that without the goodwill of private donors, the concert tonight could not take place. So I will show up, cultivate some goodwill, and, I hope, meet some interesting people.

"You will," Linda assures me. "By the way, Avery Fisher Hall has been sold out for weeks."

"Wow." I imagine the hall filled with three thousand people. I have never sung in front of such a mighty assemblage.

"Are you nervous?"

"Not anymore. I am just happy to be able to perform here."

"Very good, Tommy, that's the right attitude!"

Meantime, Micha has dug up the second sock. When the shoehorn reveals itself, I glide into my patent leather slippers and am on my way, even though it's a bit early. Avery Fisher Hall is only fifteen minutes away, and I like walking a bit before a concert. I stroll up Central Park West until the twin towers of the San Remo and El Dorado appear in the distance. Stars like Marilyn Monroe and Groucho Marx used to live at the San Remo, later to be replaced by Diane Keaton and Dustin Hoffman. Shortly after spotting them, I make a left onto Sixty-fourth Street, and the building canyon frames one of the most magnificent temples of secular modernity in the world: Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

Every year five million aesthetic pilgrims visit these fifteen acres, home to four theatres and two concert halls that offer up the best of dance, drama, classical music, and jazz. The centerpiece is the Met, the Metropolitan Opera House, which resembles a Bauhaus version of the Athenian Parthenon, its face covered with high arched windows. Next door the New York State Theatre hosts the City Ballet, while the Philharmonic makes its home in Avery Fisher Hall. Who can believe that gangs like Leonard Bernstein's Jets and Sharks ever dominated the neighborhood, and in the middle of the last century? Not two decades later, in May 1959, the gangs were history. Bernstein lifted the conductor's baton, the Juilliard Chorus belted "Hallelujah," and President Eisenhower plunged his shovel into the flattened slum floor. Lincoln Center was born.

Excerpted from The Voice by Thomas Quasthoff Copyright © 2008 by Thomas Quasthoff. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc.

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