THE VOICE: A MEMOIR, by Thomas Quasthoff, translated from German by Kirsten Stoldt Wittenborn, Pantheon, 241 pages, $24.95

This is the amazing and warm-hearted story of how a German thalidomide baby became one of the world's great bass-baritone singers.

Thomas Quasthoff, now 46, stands 4 feet, 4 inches tall on stumpy legs without knee joints. He has two missing fingers on the left hand and one on the right. But during a performance, his winning smile instantly wins over his audience.

Quasthoff is one of thousands of deformed children born to women who took the drug thalidomide for insomnia or morning sickness during pregnancy.

He grew up in an institution for the severely handicapped. He eventually succeeded in life because of a persistent sense of humor and a determination never to be a victim. Initially refused entrance to Germany's music academy, he is now a Grammy winner and teaches other singers.

An established concert singer all over the world, Quasthoff is convinced that "a singer can find dozens of consistent interpretations; there is no one true interpretation for any song." And this comes from a man who cannot freely roam the stage to display his personality, who must sing on a stationary podium and use facial signals and vocal intonations to speak to his audiences.

Quasthoff speaks of the importance of sound in vocal performance. He writes that the term "sound" originated with jazz and later became well known in pop music. He believes his voice has "certain genetically determined properties, like circumference and force, but it also has a velvety ground coat ... This allows me to use what in jazz would be called a 'cool' and supple phrasing. I try to find the sound colorations that will show the composition to its advantage, but without losing my own singing style, my personal 'sound."'

Quasthoff is eclectic in his tastes and has special respect for jazz musician Miles Davis, who asked his arranger to stage his "soft, vibrato-less trumpet for a big band recording."

Then Davis replaced the saxophone set with flutes, clarinets and horns, plus an alto saxophone and a tuba, "creating a neoromantic, lyrically cerebral orchestra sound which hung above the beat like a cloud."

He also is a fan of the Beatles, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and Al Green. In the classical category, he admires Hermann Prey, Fritz Wunderlich, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Hans Hotter and Peter Schreier. They are all, he says, "great individualists, each immediately identifiable by his or her own sound."

After he wrote the German edition of this book, Quasthoff married a girl named Claudia and they have a little daughter named Lotte and some guinea pigs.

But he must leave on concert tour periodically, from New York to Los Angeles, Tokyo, St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Amsterdam, Milan, London and back. He takes his "two ladies" with him as much as possible because he loves being a family man.


E-mail: dennis@desnews.com