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Culture

Baritone Quasthoff: An Unusual, Successful Career

Baritone Thomas Quastoff is internationally recognized as one of Germany's most accomplished musicians. Despite a severe thalidomide-related physical handicap, the singer has begun taking opera roles in recent years.

Quasthoff at the microphone

Quasthoff is one of Germany's top baritone singers

Back in 1977, the music conservatory in Hanover refused to accept the young Thomas Quasthoff on the grounds that his handicap kept him from playing the piano -- a basic requirement for any music student. Instead, Quasthoff pursued private voice instruction, which turned out to be to his advantage.

"At the time, it was a big problem," Quasthoff said. "But in retrospect I can say, it was probably an advantage for me. Because a lot of what is taught at music conservatory is not very important for the career of a singer. That means people waste a lot of time with things where I think an extra singing lesson or two in the week or in the month would help these students a lot more."

Beyond "beautiful singing"

The baritone's own artistic breakthrough came in 1988, when he won Germany's renowned ARD competition. Since then, he has made countless concert appearances, and has performed with conductors from Seiji Ozawa and Simon Rattle to Daniel Barenboim.

Quasthoff singing with orchestra behind him

Quasthoff has succeeded despite his disabilities

In Germany, great lyric baritone singers have been few and far between in the past few decades. Two personalities have dominated the scene: Hermann Prey and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Prey represented a sort of post-Bel Canto ideal, bringing the aesthetic dimension of his voice to the fore. Fischer-Dieskau, on the other hand, has had a more sober style.

As for Quasthoff, he sees himself as the progeny of both of those very different artists, although he admits his artistic vision agrees more with that of Fischer-Dieskau.

"Personally, it is very important to me to have a constant symbiosis between the music and the text," Quasthoff said. "For me, there is often too much importance put on just 'beautiful singing.'"

Focused on the young generation

Good training for young singers is especially important to Quasthoff. From 1996 to 2004, he was a voice professor in Detmold and, since 2004, he's been on the faculty at the prestigious Hanns Eisler Academy of Music in Berlin.

"I think that in order to be good, in whatever profession, you have to work very hard," he said. "Success is tied to hard work. Its no different for singers."

Quasthoff remains critical of modern music education. For example, he says he regrets that Bach cantatas and oratorios are so rarely practiced in school, even though they are part of the core concert repertoire.

"In my opinion, that really has to change in the next few years," he said. "Because we have to admit it -- many young people who come out of the conservatory today will have to make careers as concert singers, which is much more difficult than singing opera."

A love for "Lieder"

Thomas Quasthoff, right, with jazz trumpeter Till Brönner

Quasthoff, right, was named "singer of the year" in 2004

In addition to oratorios, it's the art-song genre known as "Lieder" that is particularly close to Quasthoff's heart.

"Just to give an example, one of the most renowned concert organizers here in Berlin doesn't have any 'Lieder' concerts on the program this year for the first time since I've known them, and I think that's terrible," the baritone said.

In order to promote the genre among vocal students, Quasthoff recently founded an international competition called "Das Lied."

Despite his fame and tight concert and teaching schedule, music isn't the most important part in Quasthoff's life. In 2005, he met the woman who is now his wife, a journalist named Claudia.

"I think that people make music differently when they have an inner balance," he said. "Claudia brings an incredible amount of stability and balance to my life. I'm freer, much more relaxed than before, more even-tempered, and only very seldom in a bad mood."

Author: Claus Fischer / Kate Bowen (jen/th)

Editor: Toma Tasovac

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