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A New Voice, Fully Formed

Jan Breslauer is a regular contributor to Calendar

There’s an old adage that says singers die twice--once when their voices go and once when they actually stop breathing. But almost no one expects a vocalist to be born more than once.

That’s partly what makes the case of Bejun Mehta so compelling. In 1983, at age 15, the singer retired from a distinguished eight-year career as a boy soprano. And in 1997, at age 29, he began a new musical life as a countertenor--effectively a male soprano, singing in falsetto.

The West Coast will get its first chance to hear the adult Mehta when he sings the role of Bertarido in Handel’s “Rodelinda” at the Music Academy of the West Summer Festival 1999. The production opens at the Lobero Theatre in Santa Barbara on Friday.

Praised by the likes of Leonard Bernstein and named Stereo Review’s Debut Recording Artist of the Year for his 1983 Delos CD “Bejun,” Mehta enjoyed a heady stint as a child prodigy. Indeed, he’s profiled in and has contributed the epilogue to Claude Kenneson’s recent book “Musical Prodigies: Perilous Journeys, Remarkable Lives.”

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But between the glory and now there were years of vocal silence, introspection and pursuing his musicianship in other ways--including a protracted and disappointing attempt to sing as a baritone. Now, however, Mehta’s new voice is launching him on a second career that promises to be every bit as dramatic as his first.

Although he’s only been singing countertenor for a short time, Mehta has upcoming engagements with such companies as New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera, San Francisco Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera and L.A. Opera, with which he will make his debut in the role of Tolomeo in Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” in early 2001. He is already recognized as a standout.

“The size of the voice for a countertenor is really large, and the beauty of it is unbelievable,” says diva Marilyn Horne, one of Mehta’s longtime supporters and the director of the Music Academy’s voice program. “The artistry is so gripping and so extraordinary. It just captures people. There are not many countertenors in his league. The only one that comes to mind is somebody else I know, David Daniels,” who sang in “The Return of Ulysses” with L.A. Opera in 1997.

Yet even Mehta, who is well-versed in the ways of the music business, remains startled by the speed with which his countertenor career has taken off.

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“I have been amazed by how fast it’s gone,” says the singer, now 31, who converses with a savvy and polished professionalism that bespeaks his extensive experience in the field. “I stop myself short and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m an opera singer.’ It’s what I’ve always wanted to be, and I had no idea how much I wanted to be it until it happened. I still feel uncomfortable saying I’m an opera singer.”

As much as Mehta didn’t expect to be calling himself an opera singer, he was, at one point, even less inclined to envision himself as a countertenor. “The irony is that, as a boy soprano, I had never ever wanted to be a countertenor,” he recalls. “The crowning funny story of how ironic life is is that when I was younger, Bernstein had been a large supporter. I had gone backstage once to visit him, around the time when I had just stopped singing, and he said, ‘Why don’t you just go off and be a countertenor?’ I reacted with instant horror. I had sung with a lot of countertenors and a lot of bad ones, so my impression of countertenors was very dim. But this has taught me never, ever say never.”

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Mehta studied at the Music Academy of the West last year and returns this year as a guest artist at Horne’s behest. Although he already has professional bookings for years to come, the Santa Barbara outing provides him with the opportunity to develop his voice in a more protected environment.

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“I have a soft spot in my heart for the academy,” he says.

Then too there is the lure of an appealing part. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to sing this role, which is one of the best in the whole Handel oeuvre,” says Mehta. “It’s an astounding role and one of the largest for a countertenor. And after I’ve done it in this relatively safe environment, I will have no compunction singing a role of this magnitude [elsewhere].”

Of course, it’s hard to imagine a veteran performer such as Mehta feeling trepidation, given what he went through as a child. Born in 1968 into the famously musical Mehta family (his pianist father, Dady Mehta, is Zubin Mehta’s cousin), Mehta was raised in Ann Arbor, Mich., where his father taught. His American-born mother, Martha Ritchey Mehta, was a singer who had studied in Vienna and became Mehta’s first voice instructor.

As an adolescent, Mehta recorded the music of Handel, Brahms, Britten and others before the inevitable onset of hormones forced him to quit. Shortly thereafter, he turned to the cello as his new musical voice, leaving home at age 16 to study in New Haven, Conn., with teacher Aldo Parisot.

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Mehta went on to attend Yale, where he continued to perform cello, graduating in 1990 with a degree in Germanic languages and literature. During his university years, Mehta’s musicianship also grew in other ways. He began conducting and producing records. In 1989, he was nominated for a Grammy for producing cellist Janos Starker’s “A Tribute to David Popper.” After college, he began producing records freelance, forming his own company. Sony Classical hired him to reissue several hundred titles in the Sony Classical Masterworks Heritage and Essential Classics series, and in 1998, producer Mehta won a Grammy for Starker’s “Bach Suites for Solo Violoncello.”

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Yet for all the success Mehta had in other areas of music, he never forgot his love of the voice. And so in 1991, after seven years without singing, he began to study as a baritone with the noted coaches Phyllis Curtin and Edward Zambara.

“I really tried not to be a singer, but it just never let me alone,” Mehta says. “That’s how you know it’s something you need to be doing.”

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Still, his baritone voice didn’t fall into place. “When I was a baritone, it just wasn’t working, and it was very painful,” he recalls. “At the time, I felt I was quitting, but in retrospect, I needed to give myself a rest.”

Six months went by. Then one day Mehta found himself reading a profile of countertenor Daniels. He put down the magazine, stood up, and tried an experiment. Out came a countertenor voice that sounded surprisingly viable.

“I stumbled on this, and everything changed,” Mehta recalls. “The shock was that I’d never really looked into it and that it was so fully formed right away.” Only one month later, Mehta contacted Horne, who immediately invited him to come over and audition for her foundation, which presents and supports young vocal talent. “He walked in and sang an aria from an unknown opera of Handel’s, and it just knocked the socks off me,” she recalls. “The voice seemed so perfect.”

Horne put Mehta in touch with a manager and presented him as part of her foundation’s On Wings of Song series in New York, and soon the singer had a roster of engagements.

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In September 1998, Mehta sang the role of Armindo in Handel’s “Partenope” at New York City Opera. Writing in New York Newsday, Justin Davidson said he “became a male soprano star on Friday. . . . He brings to his newfound range a couple of decades of musical experience and, like Daniels, that undefinable quality he was born with: consummate musicality.”

Just a couple of months later, when Daniels suddenly became sick during a concert tour, Mehta was tapped to fill in for him and did so to acclaim.

Clearly, Mehta is benefiting from the recent revival of interest in Baroque opera, in which the many roles that were written for castrati now best fit the countertenor voice.

“It happens to have worked out that supply and demand were stacked in my favor,” he says. “I certainly have the right voice at the right time, and I feel very lucky in that sense.” *

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“RODELINDA,” Music Academy of the West Summer Festival 1999, Lobero Theatre, 33 E. Canon Perdido, Santa Barbara. Dates: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.; next Sunday, 2 p.m. Prices: $25-$45. Phone: (805) 963-0761.


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