SPIEGEL Interview with Singer Thomas Quasthoff: 'There Was Certainly a Bonus for Being Disabled'
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?
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.
Interview conducted by Joachim Kronsbein. Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan.
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