‘There Was Certainly a Bonus for Being Disabled’

Quasthoff during a 2004 performance of the opera "Parsifal" at the Vienna State Opera. "They booed at the premiere, but you can do that in Vienna," Quasthoff recalls. "It was an artistic milestone. What could I do after that?"

German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff, one of Germany’s best known classical singers, recently announced his decision to retire from the stage. In a SPIEGEL interview, he discusses his thalidomide disability, his talent for entertaining an audience and what he sees as his mission in life.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Quasthoff, you have announced your departure from the music business. Was it because of your voice or your body?

Quasthoff: It was two things. I lost my brother Michael a year and a half ago. He was my best friend and confidant. He died of lung cancer at 52, and it was a huge loss. Then I become very ill with laryngitis and an inflammation of the vocal chords. I had always told myself that I would continue working if I got well and was able to function at the same level technically as I had before. But that wasn’t the case.

SPIEGEL: You were at the peak of your career.

Quasthoff: I achieved everything one can achieve as a concert singer. Six Echo Klassik (German classic music) awards and three Grammys, and I also have my professorship at the Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin. Now I’m going to turn to other things, like readings or audiobooks.

SPIEGEL: Are you experiencing withdrawal?

Quasthoff: Not at all. I haven’t regretted my decision for a second.

SPIEGEL: When you started singing, did it take long for your audiences to pay attention to your art rather than your body?

Quasthoff: Not long. My brother once said that I must have been born on the stage. You reach your audience at the moment when you really have something to say — that is, when you’re not just delivering a performance. Beyond that, there is a level that can’t be learned. (The late German soprano) Anneliese Rothenberger once called it the “tears in the sound.” I think I had that. Perhaps it isn’t innate, and perhaps there’s an existential connection to my disability. I performed cabaret at a very young age, which helps you connect with the audience quickly.

SPIEGEL: When was that?

Quasthoff: It was while I was studying law. And I can tell you this: You can still stick me in front of people for two hours today and I will entertain them, I will manage to do that.

SPIEGEL: Your recitals were emotional experiences for the audience.

Quasthoff: There are differences between the singers I call “voice owners,” and the people who stand up there and do something that audiences are willing to buy as a performance. Although I do have to say that it’s still very easy to please audiences today, unfortunately.

SPIEGEL: What do you mean?

Quasthoff: When I go to an opera performance and sit there while people are cheering and shouting “bravo,” I sometimes ask myself what exactly they’re cheering about. And I even see myself as an artist who also knows how to enjoy other people’s performances. I remember a performance of Mahler’s “Fifth Symphony” in Salzburg, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic. It was unbelievable how they played the Adagietto — with such intensity and devotion. I left the concert hall in tears.

SPIEGEL: Is music a kind of magic?

Quasthoff: I don’t know. Let me tell you a story instead. I was a member of the Windsbach Boys Choir, the first ensemble to sing the complete St. Matthew Passion in Israel after World War II. A man came up to me in the intermission. He was crying. He had a blue number tattooed onto his arm (a sign that the man had been imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp). He hugged me and said, in German: “I’m speaking German today for the first time in more than 50 years. I lost my entire family.” His wife, his children, his parents, everyone. “I heard you singing today, and now I know that Germany is a different place once again.” When I gave a recital in Munich two weeks later, he came to my dressing room.

SPIEGEL: Was it liberating for you to realize that you had a voice, something that went beyond the disability?

Quasthoff: My wife Claudia is from Sonneberg in Thuringia. She was born in 1970. We’ve often talked about what German reunification was like for her. I always ask: “What’s it like to grow up in a country like that, where you can’t travel and you have so little freedom?” And she responds: “I didn’t know anything else.” It’s similar with my disability. I was very lucky, because I was never treated differently in my family. When I misbehaved, I got slapped just the way my brothers did.

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that you had a normal childhood?

Quasthoff: I was taken everywhere and I wasn’t hidden away — which meant, of course, that I was also forced to deal with looks and, I suppose, stupid comments from an early age.

SPIEGEL: You yourself have a big mouth, if I may say so.

Quasthoff: That, of course, was always my weapon. I’ve become quieter now. It’s possible to put things very clearly, concisely and sharply, even when you do it quietly.

SPIEGEL: Did you struggle against your fate?

Quasthoff: No, even if sometimes I was bitter about it. It was an especially difficult time for me when other boys started going out with girls.

SPIEGEL: Did you sing as a child?

Quasthoff: Constantly. Pop songs, opera, everything. I grew up with music. We had this music chest. It was broad and rectangular. There was a radio in the left bottom corner. The record player was on the right side, at the top, the kind where you can stack 10 singles on top of each other. By the time my mother would come home from the store, I was able to sing the songs on the singles.

SPIEGEL: How was your voice discovered?

Quasthoff: My father had also taken singing lessons once. He knew a little about music, and at some point he noticed that I had a great talent. My father said: I want Thomas to have something he can look forward to once a week. The way my brother looked forward to table tennis. That’s why I got singing lessons.

SPIEGEL: Who taught you?

Quasthoff: My father went to see Sebastian Peschko, a fairly renowned and famous pianist at the time, who was the director of the department of chamber music and songs at the Norddeutscher Rundfunk (radio network) in Hanover. Peschko said: Okay, let’s do an audition. But when he heard that I was a thalidomide victim, he said: 15 minutes, that’s all the time I have. But then the whole thing lasted for more than one-and-a-half hours, and Peschko said: Okay, the boy isn’t just talented. He is 100 percent made of music. He referred me to Charlotte Lehmann, a voice teacher, and I worked with her for 17 years.

SPIEGEL: The University of Music in Hanover rejected you.

Quasthoff: They didn’t even do it directly. It was all done on the quiet. The university didn’t want to create a precedent, which, from its perspective, is understandable. Of course, they thought: What happens if he doesn’t make it through the program? They didn’t even invite me to audition. I would probably have made it, after all. I had more private singing lessons than any student gets today.

SPIEGEL: When did you realize that singing could become your career?

Quasthoff: After I had won that ARD (German public broadcasting) contest in 1988. Before that, I was giving about 15 concerts a year. A lot of church concerts. Bach, Bach and more Bach. I’m familiar with almost all the churches from Flensburg (in the far north of Germany) to Munich (in the south). I could have done 300 concerts a year after that contest.

SPIEGEL: How did colleagues react to you as a thalidomide-damaged singer?

Quasthoff: Sometimes they made jealous remarks during competitions. Once someone told me to my face that I was getting a “cripple bonus.” I think I kept my cool and simply replied: “Well, you had the chance to beat me, but it wasn’t quite enough.” Today, I can say in all honesty that there was certainly a bonus for being disabled. But you only get it once. After you’ve appeared 10 times at the Hercules Hall in Munich, and perhaps thirty times at the Philharmonic in Munich and 20 times at Carnegie Hall in New York, people no longer come to hear you because you’re disabled, but because they like to hear you.

SPIEGEL: You sang in two opera productions, as the minister in Beethoven’s “Fidelio” and King Amfortas in Wagner’s “Parsifal.” Was that the high point of your career as a singer?

Quasthoff: It was absolutely exhilarating, especially “Parsifal.” It was a fantastic production by Christine Mielitz. They booed at the premiere, but you can do that in Vienna. It was an artistic milestone. What could I do after that? I’m not a Wotan, nor am I a Rigoletto. I don’t even have the right voice for that.

SPIEGEL: Are you in contact with other thalidomide victims?

Quasthoff: Deliberately not.


Quasthoff: Well, let me ask you: What good would that do? Communal suffering? No. That’s not my thing. Of course, I’ve often been asked whether I wanted to serve as a spokesman and representative. I didn’t want to. Naturally, money is the biggest issue for most people. The compensation and disability pensions aren’t much. The maximum payment, which I also receive, is about €1,000 ($1,300) a month. Now if I, as a (well paid) university professor and successful singer, had demanded more money, I would have felt sordid.

SPIEGEL: Are you furious with the Grünenthal company, which marketed the sedative thalidomide, which was sold in Germany under the name Contergan?

Quasthoff: There was certainly some anger there. I remember getting a call from Grünenthal once. They asked me to sing at their Christmas party. I said: “You must be out of your minds!”

SPIEGEL: Do you have a particularly large number of fans among thalidomide victims?

Quasthoff: No, on the contrary. I believe that there was even some envy there. And there were some things I didn’t like, either. There were festivities that were called “Cripplefest,” or something like that. That’s not for me. And I never blamed my mother for having taken the drug. I think every person has his mission in life. Perhaps mine is to show other people that one can even achieve a great deal in life with a serious handicap. I’m not a bitter person, and I never was. My brother’s death was bad, the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I was proud of him, and he was proud of me.

SPIEGEL: Are you proud of yourself?

Quasthoff: No.

SPIEGEL: Have you exhausted your talent?

Quasthoff: Well, I’m still at it. It isn’t over yet. My life has become much quieter. I used to be on the road 240 to 300 days a year. Sometimes, when I was at home, I would walk into a closet because I had forgotten where the bathroom was. In my mind, I was still in a hotel room.

SPIEGEL: You sang a lot of Bach, the evangelist of music. Do you believe in God?

Quasthoff: Not at all. I believe in a higher power, but I prefer to call it the belief in love. Believing in God? Well, you know, too many bad things happen in the world for that to be possible. I believe that man is a faulty design. Human beings have truly misunderstood that sentence in the Bible, the one about man subduing the world. But I do believe in art. There’s that book that was just published.

SPIEGEL: You mean “Der Kulturinfarkt” (“The Cultural Heart Attack”), which was written by four SPIEGEL authors?

Quasthoff: Yes, that’s it. The authors propose closing down 50 percent of Germany’s theaters and other cultural facilities. I think that’s wrong. Even people in Diepholz (a provincial town in the state of Lower Saxony) should have the opportunity to go to the theater.

SPIEGEL: You prefer a bad “Carmen” in the boondocks to none at all?

Quasthoff: Indeed. I once heard a performance of “Carmen” at the City Theater in Hildesheim (in central Germany). The Deutsche Oper in Berlin, at least as far as some performances go, could take a page from that theater’s book. A small theater like the one in Hildesheim is a venue for three different types of performance. They serve an enormous district, and they perform everything from operettas to musicals to plays. They have an educational mandate, just like public television. And what are they doing? What’s happened to all the classical music programming? Instead, we have that miserably moderated Echo Klassik award winner concert with (German television celebrity) Thomas Gottschalk. He’s about as interested in classical music as I am in crocheting.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Quasthoff, we thank you for this interview.

Joachim Kronsbein, translated from German by Christopher Sultan (Spiegel) /
May 4, 2012

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