Bejun Mehta – an American countertenor

Writing in the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Michael Stallknecht called him "arguably the best counter tenor in the world today."

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Bejun Mehta

Early life and family

Bejun Mehta was born in Laurinburg, North Carolina, and grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His father, Dady Mehta, was born in Shanghai, China, to Indian parents, is a cousin of conductor Zubin Mehta. His father was professor of piano at Eastern Michigan University. His mother, Martha Ritchey Mehta of Altoona, Pennsylvania, was a soprano and journalist who worked in the development office of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, and she was her son’s first voice teacher. His brother, Navroj Mehta, is a violinist and the artistic director of the Ventura Music Festival.

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Early musical career

From the age of nine through fifteen, Mehta was a solo boy soprano in concerts and recordings. Of his CD for the Delos label in 1983 (Bejun DE 3019), Leonard Bernstein commented, “It is hard to believe the richness and maturity of musical understanding in this adolescent boy.” He was named by the magazine Stereo Review as the Debut Recording Artist of the Year.

After his voice changed, Mehta studied the cello, both as a soloist and orchestral player, under Aldo Parisot at Yale University. Mehta graduated from Yale University with a degree in German literature.  This led to work as an independent recording producer for labels such as Sony/CBS, BMG/RCA, Deutsche Grammophon, and Delos. His production of Janos Starker’s final recording of Bach’s Cello Suites (BMG/RCA 61436) won the 1997 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance without orchestra.

Mehta sang for several years as a baritone without much success. “I was average, just average,” he said. He began to experiment with singing in the countertenor range after reading a 1997 New Yorker profile of the countertenor David Daniels, whose early experiences seemed to mirror his own.

In 1998 he attended the Music Academy of the West summer conservatory program, where Marilyn Horne, who knew about his work as a boy soprano, offered him sponsorship through the Marilyn Horne Foundation, an organization that works to develop new talent and preserve the art of song recital. He made his operatic debut as a countertenor that same year as Armindo in a New York City Opera production of  Partenope by Handel. Two months later he substituted for David Daniels, who was taken ill during an international concert tour.

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Countertenor career

Mehta regularly performs the great roles of his repertoire with leading opera houses such as Covent Garden, Bavarian State Opera, Opéra National de Paris, Théâtre du Châtelet, La Scala, Theater an der Wien, Berlin State Opera, La Monnaie, Netherlands Opera, Barcelona’s Liceu, Teatro Real in Madrid, Metropolitan Opera, Chicago Lyric Opera, Los Angeles Opera, San Francisco Opera, and New York City Opera. He has performed at the festivals of Salzburg, Glyndebourne, Edinburgh, Aix-en-Provence, and Verbier, and at the London BBC Proms.

Mehta performs programmes with repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music. He has performed at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw, London’s Wigmore Hall, the Konzerthaus, Vienna and the Wiener Musikverein, Carnegie Hall and Zankel Hall, New York, the 92nd Street Y, Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels, Valencia’s Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia, Madrid’s Teatro de la Zarzuela, Cité de la Musique, Paris, the Prinzregententheater Munich, and the festivals of Edinburgh, San Sebastian, Verbier, Schleswig-Holstein, and the BBC Proms in London. Mehta has also conducted the Belgian Baroque Orchestra B’Rock in concerts of Haydn and Mozart symphonies.

Mehta’s operatic roles include, among many others: Orlando in Orlando, Tamerlano in Tamerlano, Giulio Cesare in Giulio Cesare, Bertarido in Rodelinda, Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice, Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Farnace in Mitridate, Didymus in Theodora, Hamor in Jephtha, Cyrus in Belshazzar, Arsamenes in Xerxes, Andronico in Tamerlano, Radamisto in Radamisto, Riccardo Primo in Riccardo Primo, Arsace in Partenope, Masha in Eötvös‘s Three Sisters, Ottone in Agrippina, and Emone in Antigone.

Bejun Mehta has been profiled by CBS (60 Minutes II), A&E (Breakfast with the Arts), ORF 2 (Austria), Arte (France), and ARD (Germany). He was nominated for the Olivier Award for his portrayal of Orlando at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. His main voice teachers have been Phyllis Curtin of Boston University (baritone) and Joan Patenaude-Yarnell of the Manhattan School of Music and Curtis Institute (countertenor).

The British composer George Benjamin wrote a lead role for him in his opera Written on Skin, which premiered in 2012 at Aix-en-Provence. In 2013 he gave a “visceral and beautifully-sung performance” in the world premiere recording of that opera. In 2014, Benjamin was at work on a new concert piece for Mehta that receives its world premiere in September 2015 at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw.

Mehta’s CD Down by the Salley Gardens, a collection of English art song, was released in 2011 (with Julius Drake /Harmonia Mundi). Ombra Cara, Mehta’s recording of Handel arias (Freiburg Baroque Orchestra/René Jacobs/Harmonia Mundi), was awarded the 2011 Echo Klassik as Opera Recording of the Year. Mehta’s CDs and DVDs also include Agrippina(BBC Music Magazine’s 2012 Opera Award and nominated for a Grammy as Best Opera Recording of the Year) and Belshazzar, both on Harmonia Mundi, Theodora (C-Major Entertainment/Unitel, shortlisted for the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik ), Mitridate (Decca), Messiah (Unitel Classics), and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream(Glyndebourne Label), George Benjamin’s Written on Skin (Nimbus CD, BBC Magazine 2014 Premiere Recording of the Year ), Benjamin’s Written on Skin (Opus Arte DVD, 2013 Royal Opera House, 2014 Gramophone Award-Contemporary ). Mehta’s 2013 solo CD Che Puro Ciel (Akademie für Alte Musik Berlin/René Jacobs/Harmonia Mundi), a collection of classical arias and was awarded Le Diamant d’Opera Magazine, the Choc de Classica, and was shortlisted for the 2014 Gramophone Award in the Recital category. In 2014, Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv released a new complete studio recording of Orlando with Mehta in the title role (B’Rock/Jacobs), which was shortlisted for the Preis der Deutschen Schallplattenkritik. Also in 2014, ArtHaus released a theatrical film version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice shot entirely on location at the Cesky Krumlov Theater in which Mehta both starred as Orfeo and was the artistic advisor. Mehta also appears on El Maestro Farinelli, Pablo Heras-Casado’s debut recording on Deutsche Grammophon/Archiv (2014), singing two of Farinelli‘s most notable arias.

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