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Counter Culture


Mehta bristles at the traditional depiction of countertenors as sonic inverts. Countertenors have actually been around forever, but were somewhat eclipsed on the opera stage during the Baroque period by stronger voices and fell completely out of fashion by the nineteenth century. But in the 1940s, Alfred Deller, the great English singer, spurred a countertenor revival, and in the nineties, Daniels has made the style positively chic. Following in Daniels's footsteps, Mehta is determined to reinvent the popular image of the countertenor, reclaiming roles that cross-dressing female altos and mezzos took from their "hooty," weak-timbred male counterparts.

"I was offered a part in a modern opera as a eunuch, and I turned it down," Mehta says. "It's time to change the stereotype of the countertenor voice as effeminate or desexed, because it's not. It's time to reclaim the masculine potency of the voice."

Furthermore, Mehta wants to establish the countertenor as a voice in its own right, not just a specialized "type" ghettoized in Baroque niches. "I don't want to be viewed as an oddity. This is a flexible voice that also permits me unrestricted access to the Romantic song repertoire -- Brahms, Schumann, Strauss, Mahler," says Mehta. "These songs are not the province of a certain vocal type; they're the province of good singers. I now say to audiences: 'Expect more from your countertenors.' "

Might Mehta's gift give us a taste of that other voice forever lost to history, the castrato? In spite of the manhood sacrificed for art, the castrato's sound was considered nothing less than virile (that's why Handel wrote all those heroic roles for castrati). Mehta has figured out a way to unify the entire range of his voice with maximum flexibility and dynamic control: sort of like a castrato with balls.

Mehta lives alone on the Upper West Side, where he practices up to seven hours a day. He admits his obsession with opera can sometimes seem all-encompassing, but he adds that music is also a tool that has allowed him to reach out in a city where communication is not always easy: "Singing," he says, "is a way to lessen the loneliness all of us feel as humans."


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