Counter Culture

When you’ve reached the peak of your career at age 14, it must be hell to face your next 60 years as a has-been. Yet that seemed to be what fate held in store for Bejun Mehta, a celebrated boy soprano who thought he was washed up by the time he reached his mid-teens.

When Leonard Bernstein first heard Mehta, he declared: “It is hard to believe the richness and maturity of musical understanding in this adolescent boy.” Music was, to be sure, in Mehta’s blood – his Bombay-born father, a pianist, is a cousin to conductor Zubin, and his mother, a singer, was his voice teacher – but in the end, what could really account for his unusual gift? It’s not every singer, after all, who can navigate the wicked coloratura riffs of Mozart’s Queen of the Night, hitting those high F’s, no less – a difficult task for most grown sopranos, let alone a 7-year-old.

In 1983, Mehta’s youthful gift was preserved on a Delos CD, Bejun, for which he was named Stereo Review’s Debut Recording Artist of the Year. But then the inevitable occurred: Hormones kicked in, effectively ending his career. Bejun took up the cello, studied German literature at Yale, and took odd jobs to get by. But he never quite gave up on coming back to singing. A slightly balding man with fierce blue eyes and a jovial manner, Mehta, now 30, grows visibly distressed when remembering this period. When he’d appeared before an audience of supportive friends, the reviews were less than rosy. Though Mehta kept trying for several years under the tutelage of the famed vocal coach Phyllis Curtin, the mediocrity of his baritone was becoming unbearable.

“I kept hoping that something was going to happen, that somehow his voice would suddenly switch on like a lightbulb,” recalls Met diva Marilyn Horne, a friend of Mehta’s, “and yet, I just heard this baritone that was pretty nondescript.”

After several embarrassing attempts, he finally quit. Record-producing was a possible alternative, something he had been doing since his college days. Mehta produced the Grammy-winning Bach Suites for Solo Violoncello by Janos Starker, and reissued titles in Sony Classical’s prestigious Masterworks Heritage series. But when the business crashed in 1996, Bejun quickly slipped into debt.

Then, just over a year ago, Mehta happened upon a profile of superstar countertenor David Daniels. Countertenors sing in a high range – equivalent to that of a female alto – using a highly developed falsetto. “What the hell, I’ll just try this,” Mehta said to himself, and started singing higher. And higher. Seemingly out of nowhere, his prodigious voice returned.

“I’m a countertenor now,” Mehta proudly informed Horne, who was understandably skeptical. Still, she had no choice but to invite him to audition for her foundation, which showcases new talent. “He came in and sang this unbelievable aria from Handel’s Flavio,” says Horne. “I was flabbergasted!” Relieved and thrilled for her long-frustrated friend, Horne immediately offered to present Mehta as part of her series “On Wings of Song.” Horne also put the young singer in touch with a manager, who suddenly found himself fielding invitations from around the world. In September, Mehta snapped up the role of Armindo in Handel’s Partenope at the New York City Opera, in a performance that earned rave reviews. Two months later, when Daniels took ill during an international concert tour, Bejun was tapped to stand in for him. Called in at the last minute, he memorized his cantata on the plane to Vienna.

A critic once described Mehta as a “singing animal,” and it’s true that he performs as if just unleashed from a cage, which in a sense he is. His joy is palpable, the voice practically inhabiting a theater. Last week, his performance before a packed house at the Kosciuszko Foundation was met with unrestrained acclaim. (The concert will be broadcast Saturday at 9 p.m. on WQXR 96.3 FM.) Next season he has been invited to perform Handel’s Ariodante at City Opera. Not bad for a has-been.

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.”

Counter Culture