go caparisoned in gems unseen, trailing white plumes of freedom,
garlanded with my good nameno figure of a man, but a soul
clothed in shining armor, hung with deeds for decorations . . .
CYRANO DE BERGERAC
SOUL CLOTHED IN SHINING ARMOR:
Love, Music And
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
. . .
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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 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.
as it should, as it must, buoyed by music and by hope, the great
quest continues . . .
© Danny Kodmur 2000
chronically overeducated and underemployed,
lives near Berkeley, CA.
Buoyed by music and hope, he's still looking.