Thomas Quasthoff has been retired from classical music for almost a decade now. The German bass-baritone was in his early fifties when he made the shock announcement – an age when singers of his type are still in their prime. His older brother Michael was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2010, and that diagnosis and his brother’s subsequent death had left Quasthoff temporarily unable to sing.
âThree days after learning that my brother wouldn’t live more than nine months, I lost my voice,â he recalls. âThe doctors looked at my throat and said, ‘It’s okay.’ But my heart was broken, and if the heart is brokenâ¦ âhe pauses.â The voice is the mirror of the soul.
Poor health was cited as the reason for his retirement in 2012, but he had expressed concern over the sterility and formality of the classical world for some time, and although his brother’s death was the trigger, he such a decision may already be prepared. .
“I always wanted to be part of the group of singers who retired quite early,” he told me on a video call from his home in Berlin. “I never wanted to hear people say about me, ‘Oh, you should have heard it three years ago. “” But his decision was a blow to the public – Quasthoff was one of the best lieder singers in the world, acclaimed for the range and colors of his voice, for his attention to detail and exceptional frankness as a ‘interpreter. In 2009, the Royal Philharmonic Society awarded him the Gold Medal, its highest honor. Previous recipients have included Brahms, Elgar, Stravinsky, Bernstein, Barenboim, Jessye Norman and Sir Simon Rattle.
That Quasthoff had a classical singing career, let alone such a successful one, was simply amazing. While pregnant with him in 1959, his mother took the morning sickness medication thalidomide and he developed phocomelia, which left him with stunted limbs. He is just over 4ft tall and life has been a constant physical struggle, but he’s not only completely selfless, but a force of nature – exuberant, loud, uncompromising.
During his classic career, he did not want any allowance for his disability. âIt’s a fact, not a problem,â he says. âI achieved everything I wanted in my life. I have had success as a singer; I have one [music] chair; I have been married for 15 years and have a wonderful, amazing and intelligent daughter-in-law; we live in a beautiful house in Berlin. What will I say? I know a lot of colleagues who are much less satisfied than me.
Quasthoff was determined never to let his disability define him. âI was educated like that,â he explains. âMy parents and my brother never treated me like a disabled person. My brother’s friends were my friends. I have always been part of a normal family life. He likes to quote a quote from his wife, Claudia Stelzig: âTommy, for me you are not disabled, you are only smaller. That’s all.”
He accepts that some of his viewers came because they were intrigued by his personal story, but believes they were a small minority. âMost came to hear me,â he says, âbecause they were entertained in a high quality way. I wanted to be accepted as a disabled artist, not seen as a disabled person who was an artist. He realized that the public would never be blind to his disability – “If I go on stage, a meter 35 [tall], with short legs, short arms and seven fingers, who will ignore it? He said with his deep, echoing laugh – but hoped that once he opened his mouth in a lieder recital, they would forget about him.
Quasthoff exudes self-confidence and resilience, but says it hasn’t always been that way. âIn the first 18 years, there were more of the dark sides than the positives,â he says, âespecially during puberty when boys have girlfriends; i was standing [on the sidelines]. I wanted to study music, but the university told me that I was not allowed because I could not play an instrument. Instead, he studied singing in private. The key, he says, is “not for these negative things to happen, but how do you deal with them and what do you get out of the situation? He treated every obstacle, every failure, every boring job he had to do to pay for his singing lessons as a challenge and a source of learning.
There was one overriding motivation that guided him as he studied for over a decade and a half and built a career. âI never wanted my mom to feel guilty,â he says, âand she did – from the moment I was born she felt guilty [for having taken thalidomide]. Even though I said 100 times that she shouldn’t, she still did, so I tried to show her that I had made the most of my life and my talent.
Since his exit from the classical world and the return of his voice, Quasthoff turned to jazz, which he had always loved, and in which he had immersed himself even in the classical era: he had made an album of jazz welcomed in 2007. âI had done this very rare in my classical days because it’s a different kind of singing, but now I’ve learned a new instrument – the microphone – and I love it. He finds singing jazz and being part of a quartet to be a wonderfully relaxed form of musical creation – intimate, pressure-free music produced by a group of friends.
This month’s Edinburgh Festival will feature Quasthoff in three forms: singing jazz with his quartet, as a teacher, and playing in a semi-staging of Richard Strauss’s opera Ariadne auf Naxos. The latter does not, however, constitute a full return to the classical scene – he will play the spoken role of the pompous butler.
Although he is mainly found in the concert hall as a recitalist, Quasthoff has performed a few operas during his classical career, but his roles have been limited by his disability. In part, the restrictions were self-imposed – he rejected Daniel Barenboim’s liberating idea that he should sing Leporello in Don Giovanni, worrying about the moment in the opera when he would have to swap clothes with the Don, who was played by the giant. Bryn Terfel. He turned down offers to sing the hunchback Rigoletto and the evil dwarf Alberich in The Ring of Wagner – a cast he felt was a bit too obvious. But he played Don Fernando, the minister who obtained Fidelio’s release from prison, and had considerable success in Amfortas in Parsifal at the Vienna State Opera. âI preferred to play kings and ministers,â he said with another deep laugh.
Quasthoff denies finding the opera physically taxing. âI was in good shape,â he says. âAt the first meeting, the director [of Parsifal] asked what can I do. I told him everything you wanted except to get naked. This will not happen, for two reasons. I don’t want it, and I don’t want the audience to be gone in seconds!
But her first love has always been to sing songs. In opera, he said, he feared that his disability would become the focal point of public attention; in recitals he succeeded in getting the audience to suspend their disbelief. âAs a lied singer you have to be a really good actor,â he says. “I think it’s missing right now”: he worries that today’s singers are putting the beauty of timbre above characterization. âYou have these mini-scenes that you have to fill with expression and color. At the opera house, you can hide behind your clothes and the set.
What about the classic world he left behind? Does he have any qualms about resisting the flattery of his agents to come back? âI loved what I was doing, but the business is very shallow. You have a number of stars that I can count on on my right hand – and my right hand isn’t that big! I had my time and I was in a wonderful situation where I was able to have a global career. As a concert singer, winning six Echoes and three Grammys is very rare.
But he insists he doesn’t miss it. âI have nothing more to prove.