Thomas Quasthoff: A Mighty 'Voice' Soars "No one expects such a mighty voice to issue from my diminutive frame," the 4-foot-3 singer writes in his new memoir.
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Thomas Quasthoff: A Mighty 'Voice' Soars

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This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. And there's an old rule of thumb for radio hosts, never invite a guest who's got a better voice than you do. Thomas Quasthoff clearly violates this principle.

(Soundbite of song "Ja, Ja, Ich Kann Die Feinde Schlagen" (Cantata No. 57))

Mr. THOMAS QUASTHOFF: (Singing in German)

CONAN: Fortunately, Thomas Quasthoff not only has a great voice. He has, by his own admission, a big mouth. The celebrated baritone joins us today from Berlin to talk about his music and his autobiography, which describes the unlikely success of a thalidomide baby born with deformed limbs, who now stands at just about four feet tall, his struggle to become a professional musician and about his life now, as a teacher, a singer and an international celebrity.

Later in the program we ask, what's recession-proof in your life? The one indulgence you won't give up in tough times? You can send us an email now. The address is But first, if you'd like to talk with Thomas Quasthoff about his career, his music and how he managed to achieve it, our phone number, 800-989-8255. Email address, again, is, and you can join the conversation on our blog at Thomas Quasthoff joins us from Berlin. His book is called appropriately "The Voice," and welcome to Talk of the Nation.

Mr. THOMAS QUASTHOFF (German Bass-Baritone; Author, "The Voice"): Thank you.

CONAN: And do you consider yourself a lucky man?

Mr. QUASTHOFF: I mean, who can say that a life of a person permanently is lucky? I mean, I have a wonderful wife. I have a wonderful little girl who's living with us. We have a wonderful apartment. I have a lot to do. I'm booked till 2011 to 2012. I'm flying tomorrow to the Salzburg Festival to have a recital with Andras Schiff. I'm happy momentarily, and yeah, I would definitely call myself momentarily a lucky man.

CONAN: Momentarily. The drug that your mother was given when you were just in her womb - in a way, you were lucky then. Thalidomide can cause all kinds of problems, and yours were just in your limbs.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Well, it - first of all, it was a matter kind of pain-relief medicament. It was a sleeping pill, and as sleeping pill, it was extremely successful. It was so successful that it was not only sold in Germany, it was sold worldwide, and the thing was that maybe the testing in the laboratories were not intense enough. And the big problem was that the company knew in '62 that this medicament is improving this kind of handicap, but they took it from the market nearly a year later.

This is what makes a lot of the disabled people who have the problem with thalidomide angry and sad. And but on the other side, I mean, what can you do? I mean, there's no medicament which will change this. And I learned not only from my parents, also from life, that the only chance that you have to get over this is to make the best out of it. And thank God I have the talent and I had parents who were supporting me in a wonderful and beautiful way, and so I could really develop my talent that I have. And - yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. In a way, the way you describe it in your book, the breakthrough was the day that your father brought home a tape recorder.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: That's true. Yeah, I mean, it was one of these technical miracles...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUASTHOFF: That even in Germany that we didn't know before and we worked a lot of this - I mean, we made a lot of house music, together with my brother who's playing a lot of instruments and he's also writing lyrics. And so, we - there was permanently music in our house, not always for the joy of my parents, but because the interests were not only in classical music. We both, my brother and me, we turned very early to jazz and not only the old-time jazz. It was really like the John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, and so, more free and modern jazz. And for a generation, my parents were both born '27 and '26, that was not really the music...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUASTHOFF: That they liked extremely, but...

CONAN: You describe...

Mr. QUASTHOFF: As I said, it was...

CONAN: You described your father at one point shaking his head, it's just noise! It's just noise!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Well, I think that every young generation - it is very interesting that, especially parents, always expecting respect from the younger ones. The problem of the younger ones is that they don't know how it is to be old, but the old know how it is to be young. So, it would be maybe a little bit easier for the older people to accept that especially young people have this kind of interests, but it was not a war. It was really this kind of normal little family struggles which every normal family has.

CONAN: And your family has stuck to you and defended you every step along the way against an establishment, a musical academy, for example, that would not let you enter.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Well, do - you have to see all these things in the context. I mean, that sounds first, if you hear that now, very rude. The law at that time was not made for people with the disability that I have. I mean, you have in America one of the biggest examples of - the greatest example of musicians with disability. I think Itzhak Perlman, for example - but he's a violinist, his arms are normal, and nobody really expected or could imagine that a person with my kind of disability would be ever able to stay on stage and having a kind of career, not talking about the way of life, that I took 'til now.

CONAN: Hm. We are talking with Thomas Quasthoff, the celebrated baritone. If you'd like to join the conversation give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, And I wanted to draw distinction, and you write about this in the book. You sing leader, as we called them in this country and you make a comparison with opera singers that I thought was quite interesting. Opera singers, you say, well, as long as you have a beautiful voice, you can have a career. If you sing leader, you need to be more. You have to a lot more than just a pretty voice.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Well, first of all, I have to correct you a little bit, because I did, for example, for my company, Deutsche Grammophon, a complete recording with opera arias. I sang "Fidelio" at the Eastern Opera Festival in Salzburg. I did the Amfortas in "Parsifal" in the Vienna State Opera. So, I've had this opera experience, too. Well, the thing is, as a lead singer, you have only the piano and the soloist, (unintelligible), the singer on stage. So, that's the smallest form of communicating with an audience. That means every eyebrow is being watched. Every little mistake cannot be hided behind costumes, behind the opera direction, behind staging. So, it is much more pure than any kind of music making that you even have. Also comparing to instrumentalists, because they have their instruments, my instrument is not visible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUASTHOFF: It's - so the contact is so direct and so intimate that I think that lead singing is really the most maybe difficult form of music making, but also the most wonderful form, because there is no musical subject which is comparable to this intimate situation that you have as a lead singer.

CONAN: Of course, you're right about your performances in opera, yet you avoided opera for a very long time.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: The thing was I didn't want to have this kind of sensation that the disabled person is singing in opera. I wanted first to established myself as a concert singer, including Mahler songs with orchestras, and oratoriums (ph), and cantatas, and all these kind of variable repertoire that you can have, before going on stage as an opera singer. And I think the fact that I was waiting so long was totally right, and beside of all, I loved to sing concerts and lead. So, I didn't miss really the opera world.

And it was finally Simon Rattle who convinced me to try it, and I'm trusting him really very much still. I mean, he's one of my really close friends. And for all the people who didn't know him, he's the chief conductor and the director of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra. I'm very sorry, but I think it's the best orchestra momentarily in the world. And without him, I don't think that I would have taken this kind of decision...

CONAN: We'll get calls...

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Of singing in opera.

CONAN: We'll get calls from the New York Philharmonic just a moment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: More with Thomas Quasthoff. His memoir, again, is titled "The Voice." If you'd like to join our conversation, our phone number is 800-989-8255, or you can send us email. The address is Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the Talk of The Nation from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Our guest today is Thomas Quasthoff, the celebrated baritone. In addition to the many arias and leader that he's sung, he's also tried his hand at jazz.

(Soundbite of song "They All Laughed")

Mr. QUASTHOFF: (Singing) They all laughed at Christopher Columbus, when he said the world was round. They all laughed when Edison recorded sound. They all laughed at Wilbur and his brother, when they said that man could fly. They told Marconi wireless was a phony. It's the same old cry.

They laughed at me wanting you, said I was reaching for the moon. But oh, you came through. Now they'll have to change the tune. They all said we never could be happy. They laughed at us and how! But ho, ho, ho, who's got the last laugh now?

CONAN: Thomas Quasthoff singing "They All Laughed" by George Gershwin from an album of standards called "Watch What Happens." Thomas Quasthoff is our guest today. In his memoir, "The Voice," he writes that performing is a lot like rock climbing. You can read more about that in an excerpt and hear him perform on our website at If you'd like to talk with Thomas Quasthoff about his career, his music, and how he managed to achieve it, our phone number, 800-989-8255, email us,, and let's go to the phones. This is Tom, and Tom's calling us from Boulder, Colorado.

TOM (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well. Thank you.

TOM: Great. I remember seeing performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra doing Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem" with Thomas Quasthoff as a soloist. And I didn't realize that Mr. Quasthoff had (unintelligible) and was just very emotional watching him make his way on the stage, singing this wonderful work about reconciliation after World War II. And obviously his disability has nothing to do with the work, but it was extremely powerful and added to the entire tenor of the evening, so to speak. I'm wondering if he finds himself being drawn to works depicting suffering, and maybe even just using his disability to make a more emotional impact.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Shall I answer directly?

CONAN: Yes, please.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: OK. First of all, I'm a much too much positive person that I would always and only choose pieces which are sad and - about suffering or anything. You know, I cannot really tell if my way of singing would be different if I had not this disability because I never lived without that. So - well, if you sing Schubert's songs, for example, there are so many also positive songs or, Hugo Wolf, for example...

TOM: Yeah.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Wrote so many funny things. First of all, the "War Requiem," of course, is a kind of thinking in a very philosophic way about the necessity of war and fighting. I definitely would say that maybe my impact, because of my disability - or the fact that that my life started much earlier, seriously, than maybe for other boys in my age - maybe gives me another impact into music generally. But I would not say that I'm a singer for tragic music, definitely not. I hope not

TOM: That is one of the most emotional performances I've ever heard...

Mr. QUASTHOFF. I remember that concert also. Yeah, it was a very, very moving concert, and I really think back with pure joy, because with Seiji Ozawa it was really very special to work, and by the way, I love Boston. I love this orchestra. I loved the hall, and I hope to come back very soon.


TOM: Thank you.

CONAN: Tom, thanks very much for the call.

TOM: You're welcome.

CONAN: In fact, that Mahler piece we began the program with, that's a pretty funny piece, too. You're kicking critics down the hallway.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUASTHOFF. Of course. I mean, this is what I say. I mean, if you handle music that is not always tragical (ph) music, I mean, beside of all that - of course, Schubert's life was not really what you would call easy and sweet and nice.

CONAN: No, not a laugh riot, no.

Mr. QUASTHOFF. Yes. But whenever was a life of composer easy?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Even in our days, I think it's even more difficult than maybe in the past.

CONAN: Let's talk with Eve. Eve is on the phone from Davis in California.

EVE (Caller): Hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

EVE: Thanks for taking my call. I just wanted to commend and applaud Mr. Quasthoff for his work, And I'm a jazz vocalist and a voice coach here in Davis, and have had some disabilities since I was a child. And I would love to have you comment on maybe the differences between working with small audiences - you talk about a very intimate setting of singing leader, and I do a lot of very intimate audience-type shows - and just the difference between that and doing, you know, very large audiences with, you know, symphonic and a much grander scale, the difference for you personally and how you feel you're relating to the audience.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: I don't think that, especially for me, that there is a big difference, because I am, I think, a singer who needs a very intense contact to an audience, and it doesn't matter if the audience is small or big. If you're not able as a singer to create this kind of intimacy - no, that's the wrong English word, right?

EVE: No, that's good.

CONAN: Intimacy, no. That's it.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Intimacy, even in a big hall, or in a hall with, well, let's say, three, 400 people, then something is wrong. I think it's really very important that you are able, with your expression and your personality, to create this direct contact to an audience. I think that the times changed of performance - of performing changed a lot. Because in the past, we had these types of singer who was standing on stage like a statue singing their stuff, taking a bow, and went offstage.

For me, for an example, it's very important, I talk to an audience, even in very serious classical places, like Salzburg or Vienna Musikverein or other big halls or Carnegie Hall, because I realized in every concert where I did this, that from that moment on, when I talk to an audience, the connection between me and the audience was much more intense in the second.

So, I don't think that there is a huge, really huge difference for me. I mean, of course, acoustically, it's a big difference if you sing in a huge hall like Carnegie Hall or in a little chamber hall like Wigmore Hall in London where 400 people fits. But that's all. I mean, you have to handle every acoustic - I mean, you are a class singer or you are not. And I think a class singer of a special class has to handle this very professionally.

CONAN: Eve, thanks...

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Does this answering - I'm sorry, is this answering your question?

EVE: Yeah, I'm glad to hear that the intimacy level is there for you, because I think that's true, when you are in a large performance, the audience needs to feel that you're singing to them.

Mr. QUASTHOFF. Exactly.

EVE: Each person really feels that connection.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: That's a little secret that my teacher - well, it's not a secret - told me which was really very easy and it was that if you watch one people in the middle of the hall and looking into the face of this person, everybody feels touched, really, and it works.

CONAN: Eve, thanks very much for the call.

EVE: Thank you.

CONAN: In fact, you wrote in the book that your experience of singing jazz in smoky clubs and playing in pubs and other places, doing material is not necessarily the great classical repertoire, that made it possible for you to realize that you're an entertainer, and made it possible for you to be a different kind of singer.

Mr. QUASTHOFF. Well, I - what shall I say? I think that this goes in the direction I said before. I think the time changed a lot. We have a media world, and I don't think that we have still the time where everything has to be like 30, 40, or 50 years ago. Let me speak with Simon Rattle, again, who said once to me, there are people who have not only one talent, they have variable talents, and the only positive way of living as an artist, and even from the view of the audience, is if it's good, let him - go to Hell, let him do it. And as long as I have the feeling that I have something to say with classical music, or jazz, or so-called popular music - that doesn't mean music without nouveau, I mean, really good music.

For example, even from American artists, I feel very often very sad that they are coming here to Europe with this Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, blah-blah-blah repertoire, and you have composers like Irving Berlin, you have composers like George Gershwin, which composed first-class, wonderful, beautiful songs. And I try to open the minds of the people a little bit that every kind of music can have the qualities, and I would be very bored if I would not have the chance to perform this - what I like.

CONAN: Let's talk with Aaron, Aaron with us from Syracuse in New York.

AARON (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Good afternoon.


AARON: You have such a marvelous, resonant voice and such clear speaking diction as well as singing diction. I wanted to ask you about various venues. One could see you doing anything from, you know, singing leader, as you do, and soloing, as you do, to being a voice over for a movie character or having your own radio show. And what about singing in groups? For example, doing Renaissance-type music or Gregorian chant or other such things?

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Well, first of all, I disagree saying that every singer can sing everything. You need really a long time to get the experience of this kind of music, and it's a total different way. Especially the Gregorian music and Renaissance music needs this smaller vibrato-less voices, and I have a vibrato which is natural. So - but you know, we - I'm really looking more and more to other repertoire.

I did, for example, last year a dual recital with Michael Chada (ph) together - Michael Chada is really one of the world-famous Mozart singers, singing momentarily. I see him tomorrow in Salzburg, I think, in "Don Giovanni," and we did a duet evening. My next recording will be Brahms' "Love Song Waltzes," so - which is composed for four voices and two pianos. So, I'm really searching this kind of different things, but I don't think that every singer can sing everything.

AARON: Let me ask you...

Mr. QUASTHOFF: That, by the way - excuse me, if I'm finishing this - that means also if pop singers think that they can sing classical music, that sound sometimes also very strange, I will not give you names, but I heard some records where I really thought, you know what? Pop music is fine, and stay with this, and with me, it's the same. I would not sing really literature where I think there are people who are extremely much better than I am.

CONAN: And you stay away from radio.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: It's Thomas Quasthoff and you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. Let's go to John. John's with us from Milwaukee.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, Mr. Quasthoff. It's wonderful to speak with you.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Thank you.

JOHN: I have a question for you. My partner and I are both voice students, (unintelligible) are both tenors, and I was just wondering, because imagine a number of young aspiring singers listening, what advice would you give to us in terms of, you know, career planning and just, yeah, just trying to make it in the classical vocal world?

Mr. QUASTHOFF: First of all, to plan a career is impossible. You need so many subjects to - only for living from that profession. That doesn't mean talking about a career. You need luck. You need a lot of work. You need talent. You need expression. You need artistry. You need a full musicality. So, there are so many subjects. You have to be on the right moment at the right place. And that has, of course, also to do with luck. And you have something to say. I mean, this is what I'm recognizing more and more, that the times where only the beauty of a voice was import is changing a little bit.

I think it is very important - let me give you an example. Maybe this is a little bit easier to understand. When I won the ARD competition, which is a very big international competition in Munich for singers and for a lot of instrumentalists, everybody was thinking, OK, now you're ready to work with (unintelligible) and I said, I think I have every record from him at home and I'm a big admirer of his art and his artistry. But I always wanted to find my own way, so I never worked with him.

That doesn't mean that I don't like him, but for me, it was always important to find my way of finding the approach to classical music and to lead singing. And well, the main important thing that I can only say, if you are a classical singer, try to sing lead. It is medicine for the voice. This is, for example, why we created - why I created with some friends a big lead competition next year in Berlin, here, from the 18th to the 22nd of February in Berlin, and we have a wonderful, wonderful jury, with Christa Ludwig, Brigitte Fassbinder, Helmut Deutsch, so great people to support lead singing and everything.

CONAN: John, thanks very much for the call, and good luck to you.

JOHN: Thank you very much.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Bye-bye.

CONAN: And Thomas Quasthoff, good luck tomorrow in Salzburg.

Mr. QUASTHOFF: Thank you.

CONAN: Thomas Quasthoff's book is called "The Voice," and that's - he was speaking to us from a studio in Germany. You could find an excerpt from his book at our website, Up next, even in a gloomy economy, some things are just too important to let go. What's the one thing you will not quit on? Stay with us. It's Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

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