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Interview with … Bejun Mehta

Interview with … Bejun Mehta

He moved us to tears as Orfeo or as Orlando, he impressed us in Mitridate or in Written on Skin. No doubt Bejun Mehta is one of our favorite Opera singers !

The countertenor has just sung the title role in Giulio Cesare at the Scala in Milan. Paris will have the chance to welcome him in May 2020, at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, in Haendel’s Alessandro.

Can you tell us about what decided you to sing and about your debut ?

I have been singing for one way or another since I was five years old. From five to fifteen I had quite a marvelous career as a boy soprano, singing with major orchestras such as the Philadelphia Orchestra in the United States, and making recordings, one of which is still available ! Because my voice was quite large, especially for a boy, I was often hired to sing the soprano soloist parts in oratorios and masses.

After that, there was quite a long break from singing while I studied cello, played in various orchestras, and went to Yale. I only returned to singing after university, because the itch to sing never left and I felt I needed to answer an important question : whether my adult voice had any quality or not. I felt – particularly after having had such a joyous time singing as a boy –, that if I didn’t answer that question one way or the other, it would haunt me forever. After an unfortunate detour misusing my voice as a baritone, I found my natural range–countertenor. It was basically exactly the voice I had as a boy, just about a fifth lower and strengthened by now being in an adult body. In hindsight it would seem obvious this should be my range, but teachers were less aware of countertenors in the 1990s, and I –like many of my contemporaries –, had to figure it out on my own.

My debut was in 1998 as Armindo in Haendel’s Partenope at the New York City Opera. Because my boy soprano career had been rather well-known, this “return” to the stage generated a lot of interest, including a huge profile on the front page of the Arts & Leisure section of the New York Times, published the day we opened. So there was a lot of pressure on me, particularly as I was still learning how to use my newly rediscovered voice. The actual performance is a blur to me now, but I do remember finishing my first aria sitting on the corner of a steel table and in the brief second between when I finished and the start of the audience response wondering what that response would be. I was terrified it would be bad or–worse–tepid, but I was not prepared for the ovation which greeted me and then fueled me for the rest of the night. The evening was a success, and it made my career.

How do you see the evolution of your voice, in terms of range, timbre or power ?

I’ve been singing now for over 21 years as a countertenor. I would say that in the first five to ten years, my voice was continually developing in terms of power, vowel harmonization, economy of breath usage and support, ease, and stamina.

For the past eleven years or so it’s been remarkably stable in terms of all the gains of the first ten years. I’m continually refining my technique – it’s a never-ending process –, and I think this accounts for the stability and longevity. No particular secret, just constant work, micro-adjustments, sticking to it. I’m very pleased at the health and freshness the voice has retained, and I extrapolate from that many years of happy singing to come.

Can you tell us about your collaboration with René Jacobs, with whom you have worked several times ?

René and I have worked together a lot ! Many productions, many concerts, two solo recordings and two complete opera recordings. I learned an immense amount from this master. Particularly in the area of recitative singing and ornamentation.

Prior to René, I had conceived of recitative singing in the common way, that the actual musical writing was simply a suggestion to allow for the approximation of actual speech. Under René, you learned every rhythm, every pause…you literally sang what was written. Once the actual written structure of the recitative was in your brain, then you could create actual flowing speech with the intention of the text while still observing what was actually on the page. This was a revelation to me and opened up huge interpretive possibilities, and not just for recitative. I’ve since tried to refine this technique a bit further, to make sure everything is both as precise and organic as possible.

You have recently debuted as Giulio Cesare at La Scala in Milan. Can you tell us about this experience ?

Well, La Scala is one of the greatest opera houses in the world and it’s always a pleasure to sing there. In this case, however, there’s a larger context which brings me joy: Italy has been a bit behind the rest of Europe when it comes to appreciating Baroque opera and countertenor singing, so having the opportunity to sing Baroque opera in Italy’s most important opera house also serves to break down barriers.

My debut at Scala two years ago as Tamerlano marked the first time that opera had been performed in the history of La Scala, and in the case of Giulio Cesare, the last (and only) time it was mounted at La Scala was in the 1950s, and then the Cesare was sung by a baritone. So it’s been a great honor for me personally to be part of this initial wave of Baroque productions in the house, and that they have been received with such enthusiasm means that we’re in the process of writing a new chapter in the history of western music.

Is it important for you to sing both Handel and the modern repertoire, such as in Written on Skin for example ?

It is important to me to sing any music which is healthy for my voice. I more think it’s important that voices not be “ghetto-ized” and perceived as being appropriate only for one kind of rep or the other. The far more important consideration is weight … do the requirements of a particular repertoire overburden a voice or not. If not – and one has something to say with a particular repertoire –, then one should sing it.

You have recently a wonderful record of cantatas by Bach, Handel and Vivaldi for Pentatone. Do you have any other recording projects ?

I’ve been fortunate over the years to amass a current CD/DVD discography of 25 titles. The recording industry famously has changed so much–precisely coinciding with the time of my career–that recording is no longer a given for anyone. Also, I’ve never much been interested in a media-driven career; they’re enormously time-consuming in terms of brand-building and other things which tear you away from actual music-making–silly morning television, dumbing down arias meant for full orchestra with string quartet, etc. So I’m proud of the achievement of 25 titles, each of which I can stand behind artistically and which were made only with art in mind. The Pentatone disc you reference is only my most recent. I’m currently in the planning for my next, and when I can talk about it, you’ll be the first to know!

What are your main projects today and which artists would you like to work with ?

In terms of people I’d like to work with, after 21 years you’ve already worked with a lot of people! But of those I’ve not yet worked with and would love to, just off the top of my head: Peter Sellars, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, Simon Rattle. My current main projects are : continuing to introduce ‘Dream of the Song’, a solo cantata for countertenor, large orchestra, and female chorus that George Benjamin wrote for me a few years ago to new audiences–the next one with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic; reprising Bertarido in Claus Guth’s gorgeous production of Rodelinda at the Netherlands Opera, Alessandro in concert with Diego Fasolis and Kammerorchester Basel, and the start of a large European tour with my pianist Jonathan Ware on our new recital program Many Loves/One Voice. The first phase of this tour takes us to Heidelberg, Köln, Amsterdam, Madrid, Hamburg, and Brussels, but special mention must be made of La Scala, where they’ve informed me I’ll be the first countertenor in history to give a recital on the mainstage.

Listen to our Spotify playlist “Bejun Mehta – A portrait” !

Photo : Marco Borggreve

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