The Singer’s Autobiography : Get Your Information- and Your Inspiration- from the Horse's Mouth

A singer’s auto-biography is an unbeatable source for information on everything from repertoire, technique, and agents, to family life, collegial relationships, and that least definable of qualities: the personal strength required to survive and flourish in a demanding international career.

I recently read three singers’ autobiographies back to back and was struck by the amazing arc they drew of the business of singing. The first I read is the recently published The Voice: A Memoir from German bass-baritone Thomas Quasthoff. Quasthoff is a Grammy-winning singer who has performed all over the world with top orchestras and conductors. His mother was given the now infamous drug Thalidomide during her pregnancy and as a result, Quasthoff was born with severely underdeveloped arms and legs. The grim realities of his childhood, despite a supportive and loving family, contrast starkly with the fun loving and deeply satisfied picture of his adult life as a singer.

As with the other autobiographies I have read, seeing these two sides of the singer are what I find most valuable. If you get to know and admire singers from their work alone it is easy to idealize their situations. Hearing about the challenges and difficulties they have had to overcome is a powerful reminder of their humanity.

Some of what Quasthoff endured as a child is almost nightmarish. As a baby, he spent a year and a half in a plaster body cast. His local school refused to admit him, telling his parents: “A child with such a great handicap is bound to put an undue burden on every teacher and the entire teaching faculty.” As a result, Quasthoff went to a boarding school for disabled children that makes Oliver Twist seem like your local Montessori school. Later in his childhood, his circumstances amplified the normal insecurities of adolescence and wanting to belong.

As Quasthoff’s vocal gifts emerged, the approval and encouragement he received seemed to offer a counterpoint to his difficulties, as did the love and support of his family, who treated him as “normal.”

The book continues to chronicle Quasthoff’s life and career, beginning with vocal studies outside of conservatory. (Again he was rejected because of his disability, this time because he could not meet the requirement of playing the piano.) He recounts winning first prize at an important competition in Munich and his work with musical role models Claudio Abbado and Simon Rattle.

As Quasthoff’s career and life unfold for the reader, his relationship to music and his enjoyment of life emerge as the only things of significance. Somehow, he seems to be free of anything you might call a “divo syndrome,” even though performance venues have to take some special care, such as making sure that the concert stage includes a proper platform so the audience can see him and taking care of other things necessary to accommodate his stature, which is just over four feet. His attitude about getting his needs met and his dedication to musicianship are admirable.

“I have learned that a musician must do his homework, consult secondary literature, compare interpretations, and study the history and context of a work,” he writes, “but when he steps onto the stage he must present his own musical interpretation.”

Upon receiving a very negative review from an important newspaper, he said simply: “I was annoyed at first, but then I have to think: Yesterday I was the Lord’s trial, and today I am a target worthy of a great man’s criticism. Things could be worse.”

The extreme difficulties Quasthoff endured and his easygoing attitude don’t necessarily seem to be a key ingredient in a singer’s success, at least not in the second autobiography, Marilyn Horne: My Life. One singer I spoke with about autobiographies said that she found singers’ autobiographies depressing—they seem to read like one lucky break after another. It’s a valid point. These stories highlight how much it matters to a singer’s career to be in the right place at the right time and to have the benefit of a helping hand.

If your thoughts tend to run towards feeling down about that, I might not recommend Horne’s book. She seems, especially when compared with Quasthoff, to have led a charmed life in many ways. But it would be a shame to miss the gems she offers in this important account of her life and career. Horne’s book is so full of interesting stories, stories about backstage at La Scala, recording in Hollywood in the ’50s, and a drunk night with Judy Garland, as well as stories of the same dedication to music that typify Quasthoff’s accounts.

Horne’s story includes the personal difficulties of an interracial marriage and the always challenging choice to leave her daughter behind when Horne traveled for work. It also includes stories of her great vocal partnerships, including the one she enjoyed with Joan Sutherland.

As for contrasting her temperament with Quasthoff’s, her accounts do not paint an easygoing picture. At one point a conspiracy seems to have been afoot to keep Horne’s pictures out of press coverage for an important performance, in favor of highlighting another of the singers involved. Horne marched up to a publicity agent (in her costume of full General attire) and said “Look, I don’t know what you’re doing, but I’ll tell you one thing: if the New York Times runs a picture and I’m not in it, I’ll find you when I get back to the States and smack you right in the face.”

Continuing to turn the clock backward, I then read Dorothy Kirsten’s A Time to Sing. Kirsten came of age vocally in the 1940s and was a protégé of soprano Grace Moore. She was a famous Tosca, Butterfly, and Manon, as well as a movie star and radio and TV performer. Note: Kirsten was the grand niece of Catherine Hayes, also known as the Swan of Erin.  Hayes made her debut almost exactly 100 years before Kirsten and was also a sensation in San Francisco, among other places. The very first Inspirazione column, “Lessons of the Gold Rush Singers,” discussed Hayes [September 2006].

Reading the glowing introduction, I began to get the image of a very showy, prima donna-like time, and thought this might not be such an interesting story. Before I knew it, however, I was completely caught up in the excitement of the time, reading eagerly to find out how this young, aspiring actress might possibly find a way, despite the stark post-Depression circumstances of her family, to go to New York City to study. Then I was equally eager to learn how the young woman fared all alone in Italy while she was just finding her vocal feet. I kept reading as she described how she made a safe passage out of Italy as impending war destroyed her maestro’s small family of singers from Germany, Italy, Poland, and the States.

Rolling forward, Kirsten gives first-hand accounts of singing La bohème, Manon Lescaut, and Tosca with the likes of Richard Tucker, and being a guest on television with Bing Crosby and Jack Benny. In some ways this book ends up being the most fun of the three. (It may be out of print, so check your used bookstores.)

These three books are the tip of a very big iceberg, but I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned about the evolution of this industry and the differences in opportunities and attitudes among singers over the past 80 years. Mostly, what I love about reading singers’ autobiographies is letting myself inhabit their worlds and circumstances and asking myself how I might feel or behave under those sorts of pressures. I might at varying moments be horrified by diva-like behavior or inspired by triumphs over adversity.

Whether dealing with a substantial disability, or facing racial prejudice in the ’60s, or sleeping on a deck chair for a journey across the Atlantic on a ship packed with war refugees, singers’ autobiographies allow me to stand in great shoes and imagine the depth of love for the repertoire and personal courage it takes to have a career of this magnitude.

Next Up: The Autobiography of Joan Sutherland: A Prima Donna’s Progress.

Lisa Houston

Lisa Houston is a writer and dramatic soprano who divides her time between Berlin and Berkeley. She recently performed Wagner’s Wesendonck Lieder with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra and the title role in The Last Diva on Broadway with the Leipzig Kammeroper. She can be reached at Lisahouston360@gmail.com.