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Profile of Zubin Mehta by John Allison for OPERA Magazine, June 2009
Profile: Zubin Mehta
By John Allison
Though Zubin Mehta celebrated his 73rd birthday at the end of April on the first night of this year’s Maggio Musicale—when it came to the final ovations, the huge video walls that are a feature of La Fura dels Baus’s new Götterdämmerung sprouted colourful flowers and the message ‘Buon compleanno, Maestro!’—it is easy to underestimate the sheer extent of his operatic career. Perhaps this is because, despite having been at the top of the conducting profession for nearly half a century, Mehta is the antithesis of the attention-seeking maestro. Much of his operatic work since the 1990s has been in only two cities, Florence and Munich, where he has simply got on with the job of maintaining the highest possible musical standards. And having stepped down as Generalmusikdirektor (he retains the title Ehrendirigent) at the Bayerische Staatsoper in 2006, after eight years in which he conducted more than 400 performances and 17 new productions, he transferred some of his energies to the new Palau de les Arts in Valencia and conducted its inaugural Fidelio. As President of Valencia’s Festival del Mediterrani (but not music director of the house, a position held by Lorin Maazel), he conducts two full Ring cycles this month. Though Mehta may not look his age—at the curtain calls in Florence he appeared unruffled by his marathon evening—the fact is he has an operatic career stretching back exactly 45 years, to Tosca in Montreal in 1964, so there was much to discuss when we met on the eve of Götterdämmerung.
And where better to start than with Wagner, and the many Ring cycles Mehta has conducted over his long career? ‘My first one was here in Florence, from 1979, with Ronconi and Pizzi. Part of it was really very good, and I still remember the details. But the singing standards were not so good, nor was the orchestra in those days—unlike today, when we have a really very fine orchestra here. Then I did half a Ring in Vienna, with Sanjust. When Lorin came in as Intendant, we had a frank discussion and he said, “Tell me something, who do you want as Siegfried? How are we going to do these next two operas?”. Of course, there was no Siegfried, and I agreed completely with him, because I’d suffered with weak singers in Florence. I didn’t want to go through that again. In Vienna we had a wonderful Brünnhilde, Catarina Ligendza, and Sotin as Wotan. So, up to Die Walküre things had gone very well, but we decided to scrap it. Then there was a cycle in Chicago, directed by August Everding, in 1996. After that, I started my tenure in Munich and took over Sawallisch’s old Ring. We did a whole new cycle with Nikolaus Lehnhoff in 1999, and then of course there was the Ring we started with Herbert Wernicke; unfortunately, he died after the 2002 Rheingold, so David Alden took it over and we completed it in 2003.
‘I’m very much at home conducting the Ring. In Munich, I didn’t have to impart it to that orchestra—they’ve grown up with it—but there’s no orchestra that just plays the Ring. Everyone has to practise hard. And, of course, there’s always the matter of getting the Wagner tubas in order—we play Bruckner symphonies a lot here, so at least we’ve got a good set. Götterdämmerung is not that difficult for the Wagner tubas; Rheingold and Walküre are harder. The Hunding motif—now, that’s tough on those instruments! But by Götterdämmerung, maybe Wagner had had bad experiences with the tuba players of that time, so most of the tuba writing is in unison.’
As chief conductor of the Maggio Musicale since 1985, Mehta has worked hard at transforming his Florentine orchestra into the distinguished ensemble it is today, but a Ring is never an easy undertaking. ‘When you start Götterdämmerung, despite the fact that they’ve played the other three, it’s so hard. Every page is like a violin concerto. Besides, Wagner is now thinking in terms of Bayreuth acoustics, so he writes a polyphony that he didn’t attempt in Rheingold or Walküre. And he didn’t have as many balance problems as we have with open pits. If I played the dynamics that Wagner wrote, you wouldn’t hear much of the singers. So we’ve retouched the dynamics a lot.’
The impulse for Mehta’s latest Ring in both Florence and Valencia—in which the innovative Catalan theatre group La Fura dels Baus mixes modern iconography with rare respect for Wagner’s stage directions—was all the conductor’s own. ‘I saw their production of Damnation de Faust in Salzburg, and was so impressed and thought I’d love to work with them one day. But it was just a thought, and I’d never met them, still less discussed anything. So when Helga Schmidt came to me with the wild idea of doing something at Valencia—the house hadn’t even been built—and the discussion turned to Wagner, I said I’d done enough Rings and didn’t really want to come to Valencia for another, unless she was able to convince La Fura dels Baus, because that really would be something new. She talked to them, and they jumped at the idea. Then I met their director, Carlus Padrissa. I was doing a new Ring in Munich at the time, so he came to all the performances—it was his first Ring—and worked out what he liked, and what he didn’t. We discussed it all afterwards, and then he went away to work on his own perception. We’ve been hand in glove ever since, and extremely flexible.’
Götterdämmerung is the sole operatic survivor—albeit it a big one—of this summer’s Maggio programme. The two other previously announced productions were cancelled quite late on, though a rewarding-looking concert programme is some compensation. Like many other arts organizations in Italy, the Maggio has been fighting the Berlusconi government’s cuts, and posters outside the Teatro Comunale proclaim ‘Senza musica mai’ (‘Without music, never’). ‘It’s a great shame—actually, a scandal. The Maggio Fiorentino is the oldest festival in Italy and the most respected in the country. Yet we had to cancel Macbeth in the very theatre, the Pergola, where Verdi conducted the premiere. We also lost Billy Budd. Together, these three new productions would have made a big statement.
‘Now we need to fight for next year, but we continue to plan for three productions. I’ll be conducting my first Frau ohne Schatten in Mario Martone’s new production, and also Eike Gramss’s Entführung. Seiji [Ozawa] will be doing Cunning Little Vixen, in a new production by Laurent Pelly. But it’s hard to know where to turn. It’s not really the culture minister who’s doing this. He’s had his budget slashed. And we’ve all become fondazione, so the government is no longer behoved. We need to get a strong fundraising arm, but Florence is not an industrial city like Milan or Turin, where they get finance from industry. We have some banks who help us here, but the crunch has reduced them too. Berlusconi’s government keeps talking about introducing some kind of tax deductibility, but they don’t do it. So people have no incentive to give.
‘Sometimes it feels very unhealthy here, at least when I compare it with Munich. There they have full houses every night. And I mean every night. Italian theatres don’t play every night, but in Munich and Vienna they do—the only dark night is for the opera ball, or just before a complicated new production. And in my time in Munich we had a €50 million subsidy, so we were in the black. But at least the Maggio functions very well, and conductors want to come and work—they love our orchestra, so we have a good roster. Riccardo [Muti] takes the orchestra on tour later this summer. I invite all my good colleagues with open arms. It keeps the standard up. I learnt that a long time ago in LA. Having weak guest conductors isn’t good for anybody. You come back after three months and the standards have gone down.’
Mehta’s long association with the Maggio is not actually the longest of his career. That distinction belongs with the Israel Philharmonic, with which he has maintained an extraordinary 40-year connection and conducted more than 2,000 concerts at home and around the globe. Appointed music adviser to the IPO in 1969, he became music director in 1977 and was named music director for life in 1981. Their repertory together has been wide (and includes operas in concert). ‘But not a note of Wagner! Well, hardly a note … I tried to do it in 1981, just as Daniel [Barenboim] did more recently. Both of us tried the same thing, offering the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan after the main concert was over. We were saying, stay if you like, we’re not forcing you. It didn’t work. People get very emotional without even hearing a note. One has to take into consideration the fact that there are still people there with numbers tattooed onto their forearms. We didn’t want to hurt them. Music transports them back to days of terror much more strongly than a name like Volkswagen or Mercedes. That’s the power of music, and it—and they—need to be respected. But after those Tristan excerpts, we polled the public and 86 per cent were in favour. And except for two players, every member of the orchestra performed. Those two were holocaust survivors, and they asked to be left out. Other survivors were happy to play—it’s a personal thing. I’m sure we will do Wagner one day. Those performances aroused so much interest and curiosity. Even the government radio plays Wagner, and no one—it doesn’t matter which party is ruling—has ever interfered.’
Mehta seems always to have felt at home in Israel, but then it has been suggested that—for everything from the exuberance of its people on the street to the ocean air—Tel Aviv reminds the conductor of his Bombay roots. Growing up in a Parsi family in the Cuffe Parade district of that great Indian city, by the age of five the young Zubin was standing on an old vegetable crate and conducting imaginary orchestras—doubtless imitating his violinist-conductor father, Mehli Mehta, founder of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. ‘My father started the orchestra in 1935, the year before I was born, so I don’t remember exactly when I heard music first. It was simply a part of my life. He was the concert master, but had been entirely self-taught, and some dissatisfaction with his own playing led him, after the war, to intensive studies in New York. He went to Ivan Galamian—the leading teacher of the time, who also taught Itzhak [Perlman] and Pinchas [Zuckerman] and that whole generation—and came back to Bombay a finished violinist of the Russian school.
‘But eventually he moved to Britain, because he was unable to make ends meet in India: after the British left and the Jewish refugees moved on, there was only half an orchestra. First he joined the Scottish National Orchestra, at that time under Karl Rankl, but was very unhappy there. They paid so little, £7 a week, that he couldn’t find a decent place to live. So he auditioned for Barbirolli, who immediately invited him to the Hallé. He started on the seventh stand, and two seasons later he was assistant leader. They loved each other—you can read about my father in Barbirolli’s autobiography. He stayed in the Hallé from 1955 to 1960. By that time I was already studying in Vienna, but I visited Manchester—mostly to eat my mother’s food—and on one visit there I heard the premiere of Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony at the Free Trade Hall. Barbirolli would invite my parents to his house and cook them Italian food. And, of course, he was a great, great conductor.
‘In Manchester, my father’s life was fine. But he’d always wanted to go to America, especially after his postwar studies there. So Galamian got him a job as the second violin of the Curtis Quartet. Barbirolli was weeping. In 1964—by which time I was in LA, and my parents wanted to be where I was—he came and auditioned for the job of directing the orchestral department at UCLA, and got it. Nothing to do with me! Then he formed the American Youth Symphony, and conducted it for 33 years. He was a very strict and disciplined trainer, especially of strings. Today you’ll find kids from there in every major American orchestra. Wherever I go to conduct, someone always comes to me and says, “You don’t know how much I loved your father!”.’
His father, who died as recently as 2002, aged 94, lived long enough to witness the establishment in 1995 of the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation. Based in Mumbai, it aims to promote western classical music and music education there, and it is an organization close to Zubin Mehta’s heart. ‘Last October I went to India with the Israel Philharmonic—and Daniel, Pinky, Plácido and Barbara Frittoli—to give five concerts in aid of the foundation. At the moment it enables over 200 children in Mumbai to learn violin and piano, but hopefully one day we will build a music school there.’
Mehta’s own education took him to Vienna in 1954, after a short period of pre-medical studies in Bombay. ‘In India, our parents choose our professions for us. Mine told me to be a doctor. But I had a cousin who was a very good pianist in Vienna, and because he was three years older my parents had the confidence to send me there. His son, by the way, is now the countertenor Bejun Mehta. My brother, Zarin, went to London to become a chartered accountant, and after graduating moved to Montreal as a senior partner at Coopers & Lybrand, but gave it all up when they wanted him at the Montreal Symphony. And, of course, he’s now running the New York Philharmonic.’ This musical dynasty is completed by the conductor’s son, Mervon Mehta, who recently moved from Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center to be the first executive director of performing arts at Toronto’s Royal Conservatory.
Studying with Hans Swarowsky at the Akademie für Musik, Mehta was very happy in Vienna. ‘Now, as soon as I set foot there, I feel at home. I learnt the language on the streets, and still speak German with a Viennese accent. I cannot tell you one case of bias because I was Indian. They adopted me from the beginning.’ He found things less easy in England, where, after winning the Liverpool International Conducting Competition in 1958, he spent a year as assistant conductor at the Liverpool Philharmonic. He remains reluctant to talk too much about that experience, but acknowledges its more useful lessons. ‘I never enjoyed real communication with John Pritchard. I learnt a lot at his rehearsals, but he never properly prepared me to take over. He would just not feel like going in one morning, and phone and ask me to rehearse Elgar’s Second Symphony. I’d say, “I don’t know Elgar’s Second, I’ve just come from Vienna and I got the score so that I could study it in your rehearsal.” He could have prepared me a week before. It was the same with Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra—he made he rehearse that! At the time I felt I was a miserable failure—when I was unhappy, I’d catch a train to Manchester and listen to Barbirolli—but these are pieces I still know today. And I think I’ve always been good to my assistants because of that experience.’
By this time, Mehta had already formed one of his most important musical friendships, with Barenboim, which in turn led to the formation of what was once dubbed the Kosher Nostra—a group of colleagues whose special rapport is captured in that memorable film of the Trout Quintet in which Mehta plays double bass. ‘Daniel and I have been like brothers since we met in Siena in 1956. I was 20, and he was 11 or 12. We are as close today as we were then. The two of us found Itzhak and Pinky. And he found Jackie … The five of us were inseparable. We’re still very close, and there has never been an ugly word passed between any of us. After Jackie died, I couldn’t accompany the Elgar concerto for 15 years. She was more than special to us.’ Even after all these years, Mehta still fights back the tears when he talks about Du Pré.
Mehta’s early operatic career developed in parallel with his busy orchestral life and music directorships at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra (1960-7), Los Angeles Philharmonic (1962-78) and New York Philharmonic (1978-91, the longest serving music director there). His 1964 debut with Tosca (‘a symphonic version’, reported opera) in Montreal led seamlessly to the Met. ‘Mr Bing came to see it, and asked me to the Met for Aida in 1965. That was the old Met, and I’ll also never forget doing the final night there—with Nilsson. I was quite close to Bing—remember, he was Viennese. With me he didn’t pretend to be English, but with everyone else it was “Sir Rudolph”.’ Another of Mehta’s important Met nights was the premiere in 1967 of Marvin David Levy’s Mourning Becomes Electra.
‘I never realized then how lucky I was with singers. My first Trovatore cast at the Met was Leontyne [Price], Bumbry, Plácido and Sherrill. And then I recorded it with the same cast, except with Cossotto instead of Bumbry. I did a lot with Leontyne, and we just don’t have singers like her today. Some other types of role are perhaps easier to cast—I’ve suffered with a lot of Siegfrieds, but I’m so happy here in Florence with Lance Ryan. This man is so musical, he’s right with me wherever he is on stage. It’s a penetrating voice, at the beginning of an evolution—he will be something glorious. But, going back to Verdi, find me an Otello today?’
Otello was indeed the opera of Mehta’s Covent Garden debut, in 1977, when Jon Vickers sang the title role. Although he conducted more frequently at the Vienna Staatsoper, Mehta returned to London for such notable occasions as Tristan, again with Vickers, and Fanciulla with Domingo. ‘I had a few happy years there, but the 1991 Carmen with Nuria Espert was not a very happy experience. The lady [Maria Ewing] just never showed up at rehearsals.’
One of the most fascinating things about Mehta’s music-making is his special affinity for the Second Viennese School, and his way of making often tough scores sound so, well, musical. His 2006 Moses und Aron, the production with which both he and Peter Jonas bowed out of Munich, will not easily be forgotten by anyone who heard it (Mehta’s evident love for the piece reminded us of the composer’s roots in late-Romanticism while also bringing matchless clarity to its workings), and one of his most imaginative recordings is an IPO performance of the three non-Debussy Pelléas works—Sibelius, Fauré and (especially warm) Schoenberg. ‘I grew up with it. Swarowsky was a personal friend of Schoenberg, and belonged to that society for unpublic performances and used to play accordion at their meetings. I got to know the family very well—they were around the corner in LA. In fact, recently my wife and I gave the Vienna Philharmonic an American barbecue at our house during their world tour, and after lunch we walked the whole orchestra round to the Schoenberg home, where the two sons, Ronnie and Larry, took them on a little lecture tour. The old lady, Gertrud, was very kind to me. But I once invited her to the performance where I did Beethoven’s Seventh and the Dance of Vengeance from Barber’s ballet Medea. She said, “How dare you invite me to such a programme?” I protested that it was a very good piece, but she could be very snobby.’
Mehta’s huge facility in such difficult scores is in keeping with the rest of his musical personality: no matter what he conducts, he retains completely cool and poised control. In the green room, as I discovered on meeting him once before, he is apt to ease into the most demanding performance by watching test cricket—his great non-musical passion. Such perceptions may explain the accusations of superficiality that have dogged him from time to time, but he is unconcerned. ‘You know, that’s not my problem. Music is what you hear—don’t look! In any case, I feel such criticism has stopped recently. In LA I had no peace, but nobody cancelled their subscriptions because of what was written.’ Equally, a style that favours bold attack and voluptuous sonority has drawn criticism for its vulgarity, especially at the time when Mehta was pursuing some of his more popularist projects, such as Turandot in the Forbidden City, the ‘real-time’ Tosca in Rome, and a couple of ‘Three Tenors’ concerts, all in the early ’90s. His critics have tended to overlook the now classic status of his earlier recordings of those same two Puccini works, among many other discs.
A tireless performer and equally tireless campaigner through music for charitable causes—and thus the recipient of some of the highest awards from India, Italy, Israel, the US and the UN—Mehta must surely be a contender for the title of busiest conductor? ‘No, I think Daniel does better there! In fact, you’ll find I’m usually in just one or two places. If I do travel, it’s with one of my regular orchestras. I’ve just done a world tour with the Vienna Philharmonic, but I’ve been here in Florence for six weeks and will go to Valencia for seven. Then I have another three weeks in Israel, before taking the Israel Philharmonic on tour to South America. I used to spend five months of the year in Munich. So I’m not jetting around for remuneration or career experience. Sometimes when someone asks a favour I probably say yes when I shouldn’t. My wife thinks I shouldn’t!’ Home remains Los Angeles, but Mehta doesn’t often get to see it.
Not far off half a century in the opera pit, Mehta shows no sign of slowing down. His plans in Florence include two operas that have been on his wish-list for some time. The 2011 Maggio should feature The Makropoulos Case, directed by William Friedkin, and the Wagner celebrations in 2013 ought to give him a chance to conduct his first Parsifal. ‘So, you see, we are still planning. I hope Mr Berlusconi lets us do it all.’