The Countertenor

Bejun Mehta Gets A Second Chance

At an age when most American boys were hitting a baseball, Bejun Mehta was hitting high notes.

A child prodigy, Bejun was singing his heart out and gaining fame. But fame was fleeting. His voice changed, and by the ripe old age of 15, Bejun was washed up.

As he grew into manhood, he struggled to find a new life for himself. Finally, he did - as a countertenor, men who sing in the same high range as women.

One of the biggest stories in opera today, reports 60 Minutes II correspondent Bob Simon, is the new breed of high-voiced men who are creating a new sound and shaking things up.

"What's fantastic about what's happening now is that it's happening now, " says Mehta." It's a revolution going on right now. You can buy a ticket, go to an opera house, and hear something happening now. I think it's incredibly exciting."

For the last century or so, the most popular operas in the repertory of the biggest opera houses starred tenors and sopranos, an old-fashioned world where men were men and women were women and there was no ambiguity whatsover.

Now in this increasingly androgynous age comes the countertenor, a man who can hit the notes we're used to hearing from the likes of Maria Callas.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, countertenor roles in opera were sung by castrati - young boys who were castrated to keep their voices from changing. But castration went out of fashion and women started dressing up like boys to sing those parts.

Now, those roles are being given back to men, to countertenors like Bejun Mehta.

There's no surgery required, nor any vocal tricks. Mehta says singing in a voice that's both muscular and delicate just comes naturally to him.

The heroes of recent times have been tenors, men who have high voices, but that is changing.

"Let me just put it to you this way," says Mehta. "When we're backstage, you know, with your colleagues, you get rueful glances from some of the tenors sometimes who used to be just, you know, king of the hill. And they're not maybe as much king of the hill as they used to be."

Metha had his time as, if not "king of the hill," at least "prince of the hill." The loss of his early career left him devastated.

"It was my first experience of death, that's what that was," he says. " I had this career, as a kid, and got to sing, and got to express myself this way. And I spent many years after that wondering, 'OK, is it all downhill from here'?"

For a while, it was all downhill. Born into a musical family – both parents are professional musicians and maestro Zubin Mehta is his cousin - Mehta took up the cello, but it wasn't singing. Marilyn Horne, one of the greatest mezzo-sopranos in operatic history, took an interest in him.

"She knew me as a kid singer," he says. "And so she was interested in hearing what this baritone voice would be like." He adds ruefully, "I was average, decidedly average."

For months, television filled the empty space in his life. He was broke, depressed and going nowhere.

Then in 1997, Mehta turned his life around. He had read a magazine article about another failed baritone who was winning applause singing countertenor. A light bulb flashed over Bejun's head. With nothing left to lose, he turned off the TV and started making countertenor sounds.

After a few months, he performed for Horne.

"He sang this extraordinary, really fast coloratura aria with all those fast notes," Horne recalls. "And I said, 'Well, that's it.' "

She immediately offered to put him in a recital the next year with her foundation. "And there was just no doubt," she says. "He walked on the stage and it was like a star had arrived."

At the Santa Fe Opera last summer, Mehta had a leading role in a production of "Mitridate," which Mozart wrote when he was 14. Singing like a woman, he plays a prince, while the role of his brother is played by a woman, dressed like a man, who sings soprano.

"When the countertenor first sang," says Richard Gaddes, director of the Santa Fe Opera, "one felt that, that people were almost ready to run for cover. They were so surprised."

He says audiences have gotten use to women playing the parts of men, but are only just beginning to accept the idea of men singing like women.

"Some people were quite horrified," he says, "and I remember we had a lot of letters asking us what on earth are we doing? Have we gone mad? But it's quite commonplace today."

Will the countertenors some day replace "The Three Tenors"?

"I wouldn't venture a guess," says Mehta. "All I know is that my schedule is full, and people want to hear me sing."

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