March 08, 1999 12:00 PM

There has never been any hiding Thomas Quasthoff’s remarkable gift for music. When he was not yet a year old, he lay in the children’s ward of a hospital near his home in Hildesheim, Germany, where nurses played recorded music to calm the young patients. The following day, Quasthoff was singing one of the melodies. “The nurses told my mother I had a musical talent,” he says. “She said, ‘He’s not able to speak, much less sing.’ ”

Mother, of course, was wrong. And at 39, Quasthoff is a star of the classical music world, with more than 20 CDs available and a hectic schedule of concert appearances. He is scheduled to sing works by Bach and Mozart with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra in April.

As a musician, however, Quasthoff has had to rely on far more than his rotund bass-baritone to battle the prejudice and misunderstanding that nearly eclipsed his career. He was born with serious birth defects caused by the drug thalidomide, which his mother took for morning sickness during her pregnancy. Quasthoff’s hands are attached to his shoulders, and he stands barely four feet tall—hardly the hallmarks of a performer. When he was 13 he was refused a place at a school for the performing arts because it was physically impossible for him to play the piano.

But with his voice—and what a Wall Street Journal reviewer recently called his “gutsy, declamatory delivery”—Quasthoff has scaled the musical heights. “No question about it,” says New York Philharmonic guest conductor Sir Colin Davis, “he is one of the great bass-baritones of our time. To me, he is a lesson in life.”

Born in the industrial city of Hildesheim, near Hannover, where his father, Hans, worked as a civil servant and his mother, Brigitte, as a homemaker, Thomas spent a year and a half as an infant in a plaster body cast that helped straighten his twisted feet. At age 6, he was placed in a hospital for mentally and physically disabled children by German authorities, and only after a prolonged battle could Hans persuade the state to let Thomas live at home. Yet Quasthoff seems unscarred by the experience. “I learned to look around and realize there are people whose situation is worse than mine,” he says.

Though small in stature, young Quasthoff had personality to spare. “One couldn’t exactly call him shy,” recalls his only sibling, Michael, 41, a journalist living in Hannover. When faced with taunts from kids at school, Thomas held his own. “He had such a big mouth, he didn’t put up with much,” says Michael.

Quasthoff’s parents, now both 72, began recording his renditions of pop songs when he was still in diapers. But his hopes for a musical career were nearly dashed when Thomas’s application to the Hannover Hochschule für Musik und Theater was rejected because of his disability. Disappointed but not defeated, his parents arranged daily lessons with a well-known soprano, with whom Thomas studied for 17 years.

Quasthoff’s big break came in 1988 when he won Germany’s prestigious ARD International Music Competition, spurring a rush of concert bookings and recording deals. Oregon Bach Festival conductor Helmuth Rilling heard him perform in Germany—”I thought, ‘Outstanding voice, outstanding person,’ ” says Rilling—and invited him to sing at the annual summer event in Eugene in 1995.

Though Quasthoff, a bachelor, continues to live in Hannover, he says his frequent concerts here have left him smitten with the U.S. “Americans respect accomplishment,” says Quasthoff, who reports that he was once called a “gnome” by a spiteful German critic.

Not that Quasthoff is one to let a thoughtless slight stand in his way. “I think it’s important to accept your disability,” he says. “If you don’t love people—and that includes yourself—you shouldn’t be in this business.”

Patrick Rogers

Roy Kammerer and Karen Nickel Anhalt in Germany

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