I go caparisoned in gems unseen, trailing white plumes of freedom, garlanded with my good name—no figure of a man, but a soul clothed in shining armor, hung with deeds for decorations . . .

CYRANO DE BERGERAC
-Edmond Rostand

 

A SOUL CLOTHED IN SHINING ARMOR:
Love, Music And Thomas Quasthoff

Danny Kodmur

It had started out as a kind of pilgrimage. Two articulate disabled men who happen to be great lovers of music decided to check out this new sensation, Thomas Quasthoff, to see what the big fuss was about.

We knew he was young, from Germany, a singer of those concert songs usually called lieder. We also knew that the able-bodied public loved him for his singing but often concentrated on his dramatic personal history; his mother had taken the drug thalidomide during her pregnancy, and he had been born with the short stature, bandy legs, and flipper-like arms so often seen in the photos of thalidomide babies from the 60s.

I think we both knew from our own experiences that behind every "overcoming disability " narrative so beloved by able-bodied people there often lay a deeper and more meaningful story. I'm not sure we went to the concert hall at Berkeley expecting to discover the deeper Quasthoff saga, but I think we arrived full of a strange sense of pride and expectation, as if the man we came to hear was in fact our special representative, our champion, Our Guy.

My companion during this special afternoon, a man intimately familiar with classical music and with the experience of frequent concert attendance, seemed to fit right in, but I was less immediately comfortable, for a number of reasons. Not only is the Jew inside me profoundly uneasy with anything remotely connected to Teutonic culture, but the expressive theater queen in me also bridles at the artificiality and the remoteness of the recital format, in which the performer ignores the audience completely until the last piece is finished. I wanted to see Quasthoff, certainly, and was excited by the idea of him, but I really wasn't expecting to enjoy the music.

Maybe I've been corrupted by able-bodied people, because just as they have underestimated us far too often, I had started off underestimating the disabled guy. But from the minute he walked out on stage, flanked by his six-foot-plus accompanist, he had the audience. More important, he had me, and my full attention. He was his own master of ceremonies, introducing himself, making jokes with the audience, and generally bombarding us with his personality in the most pleasant ways imaginable.

After a few minutes, I realized it didn't really matter whether I liked the music as music. I just knew I enjoyed Quasthoff, that the joyful fun he was having on stage was radiating out to all of us. Part of his charm was his easy manner with the audience and his willingness to tease them while not sparing himself a degree of ridicule. His program was overflowing with notions of romantic love set to music, but several times he took pains to remind us that he was just singing, that the world of romance existed in its own separate sphere, a universe where he might not ever successfully take up residence.

His final set of songs was not scary German lieder but part of a Ravel song cycle; in these pieces, assuming a variety of moods, Quasthoff became Don Quixote, proclaiming his love for the fair lady Dulcinea. It may not have been Man of La Mancha, but it was close enough, definitely familiar ground for me.

Growing up, like most young musical theater fanatics, I was never content merely singing along to records. I saw myself actually playing leading roles. I may have been fantasizing, but I wasn't being stupid. I had no illusions that I would someday be magically transformed into a song-and-dance man; instead, I coveted parts that I thought could reasonably be played by an actor with a disability, an actor using a wheelchair, an actor whose character would not need to dance.

Chief among these was a character close to my heart and my experiences, the very symbol of selfless and doomed unrequited love, Don Quixote himself. When I heard this confident and assured disabled theatrical performer take up the role I loved, I got a sudden sense of possibilities opening up. Then, when he announced a surprise encore with a smile and a bit of a wink, I don't think I knew what to expect.

His first few notes told us what the song was, but even then some people in the audience didn't believe he was serious. You see, the song was " Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Scattered nervous giggles soon gave way to stunned and thunderous applause. Not only was the encore no joke, but this German of less than four feet in height was somehow embodying and encapsulating the sculpted and dominating football-player presence of Paul Robeson, another pioneering singer who had made this same spiritual his own personal property for decades.

So Quasthoff could be Don Quixote, and sing spirituals like no white man I had ever heard. I was blown away. A tiny part of me was jealous, but mostly I was just inspired. His music had spoken to me, but I also felt that his humorous persona was sending me an encrypted message. I joined the parade of worshipers backstage and said hello and thank-you, but what I really wanted to do was go home and write.

I make no claim to any powers of revelation, but what follows are the linked ideas which came into my brain as I sat at home trying to process the benevolent emotional and existential earthquake that was for me the aftermath of the Quasthoff Experience.

. . .

Some Postulates

1. We know able-bodied people are frightened by us, so we charm the hell out of them with smiles and wit, to relax them and give ourselves a little less to worry about.

2. If we are physically disfigured, we are frightening.

3. If we are small, then it is far too easy to see us as children.

4. Sexuality means we are grown-ups at last, whether the rest of the world is ready for us or not.

5. But since we spend our lives adapting and accommodating ourselves to the world and to other people, we don't want to alienate anyone, or to frighten the horses as it were.

6. So we become expert at the double game, that dance of admit-and-deny.

7. We simultaneously advocate for our romantic potential and ridicule it.

8. That way if someone can follow us psychologically and imaginatively into the thicket of romantic possibility, we can wink at them and say it's OK to come along.

9. If other less open people recoil at this potential vista, there is room within the wink and the self-ridicule for them to assume that we aren't really serious.

10. But if we weren't really serious about it, we wouldn't be bringing it up so constantly, even if we bring it up only to wave it away.

11. Romantic desire is one of our strongest natural instincts.

12. Sublimation of that desire is one of our strongest artificially-created instincts, whether the impetus for it comes from external pressure or innate fear.

13. Audiences marvel at the romantic and theatrical ardor Quasthoff shows onstage.

14. They chuckle benignly at the verbal expressions of that ardor evinced in his passing comments.

15. It is possible that they are being patronizing, because it is so easy to pigeonhole the charming man in front of them as funny, cute, adorable, like a favorite child or pet.

16. They may not realize one very important thing, both because they are largely clueless and because Quasthoff masks it so well.

17. No matter how much he jokes, minimizes, ridicules, the same volcano that fuels his onstage passion is lurking just beneath the surface of his "real life."

18. He hopes that some special woman someday will recognize that he isn't really joking.

19. He hopes that someday the love he shares so generously with his audience can be shared with just one person.

20. Otherwise, he could spend his life beloved by all, known by few: revered by humanity yet not held close by any individual humans.

Even after I had typed out these interwoven thoughts, my mind was still racing. I wondered whether I had truly penetrated to the core of Quasthoff's soul, or whether I was merely giving voice to the romantic frustration I had felt and still feel as a disabled Don Quixote.

I know that Quasthoff seems more emotionally and professionally fulfilled than most disabled men, but I also recognized how little that can mean if your private life stands in too painfully stark a contrast to public adulation and acclaim. We wish we could restore the balance ourselves, but the painful truth is that we need others to work along with us. Sly and ingratiating hints may not be very effective, but there's only so much we can do to hit people over the head before we grow tired and discouraged.

Still, I have to wonder how much of this portrait in frustration is Quasthoff, and how much is me. I'm fully aware I may be projecting as skillfully and unconsciously as do the latest sparkling machines at the multiplex, but my clear sense as he spoke that Quasthoff and I shared similar anxieties about life and love retains for me the ring of truth. We all find ways of coping with life's many disappointments, and I sensed a great artist making that attempt during a spring afternoon in Berkeley.

What remains with me today is more than the music, more than the neurotic shock of recognition, more even than the dual bonds of disability and chivalry. I carry with me a lasting reminder of Quasthoff's deep passion for music and for life, and a renewed sense of the many possibilities for human connection arrayed before me. In truth, if I could not believe in the reality and the inevitability of love after hearing Thomas Quasthoff sing, I would have to be made of stone, a creature hopelessly lost in lonely bitterness.

I know I am not that creature. In fact, I do not ever anticipate becoming that hardened to the world. It's just that, like Thomas Quasthoff and so many others, I grow tired of waiting and hoping and joking, and pretending, at least publicly, that the outcome of my romantic future doesn't matter to me. It matters very much. We valiant knights might be able to live without the clang of battle or the thrilling rush of righteous victory, but without hope of love, life becomes stagnant, impoverished, and hollow. We scorn all the well-meant advice that urges us to settle, to resign ourselves to the inevitability of lives devoid of love, because deep down we know we deserve a far richer existence.

So, as it should, as it must, buoyed by music and by hope, the great quest continues . . .

© Danny Kodmur 2000

 

 

DANNY KODMUR (dkodmur@earthlink.net),
chronically overeducated and underemployed,
lives near Berkeley, CA.
Buoyed by music and hope, he's still looking.