Pictured: Bejun Mehta by Marco Borggreve, CC BY 3.0.
by Mary Lathem
Discover something new today! This series explores the lives and contributions of classical artists with connections to the Carolinas. Intended as quick “brain breaks” for learners of all ages, these educational features can be divided into sections for daily reading or used as lesson plans for students at home.
NAME: Bejun Mehta
PROFESSION: Opera Singer
VOICE TYPE: Countertenor
What is a countertenor?
“Countertenor” classifies the highest voice type for a male classical singer, achieved by using falsetto. A countertenor’s range is usually similar to a female contralto or mezzo-soprano, but can even be as high as a soprano’s range!
The Boy Soprano Years
It’s not unusual to go through a career change or two over the course of your life – but can you imagine retiring from your first career at 15? Though he is one of the most celebrated countertenors alive today, Bejun Mehta’s journey from accomplished boy soprano to the opera stage was less of a straight line than you might think.
Born in Laurinburg, North Carolina in 1968, Bejun quickly attracted attention for his unusually strong, clear soprano voice. By the age of 8, he had established himself as a prodigy, regularly performing as a soloist with major orchestras around the globe – but even as his skill developed, he knew this stage of life wouldn’t last forever. With a voice change quickly approaching, he recorded the 1983 album Bejun at 14, and his boy soprano career halted shortly after.
A Time of Transition
In a 1998 interview with the New York Times, Bejun described the end of his boy soprano years as a “double whammy:” ”Not only did you stop being visible and famous, but you lost what it was that you could do. And that was tremendously painful.” Over the next several years, he continued his musical pursuits as a cellist, conductor, and producer, but he could never shake the need to sing. After attempting to train as a baritone (an effort that “just wasn’t working”) and nearly giving up on singing altogether, Bejun experimented with his range one afternoon after reading an article about a countertenor – and something truly magical happened.
A Singing Career, Reinvented
Though becoming a countertenor might seem like a logical next step, the mechanics of the boy soprano and countertenor voice are not always compatible – and Bejun wasn’t interested in the “hooty, broken-voiced sound” of many countertenors he knew as a child. In fact, he disliked the idea of being a countertenor so much that he never considered becoming one until the day of his “experiment.”
Listening with the ears of a music producer, Bejun was surprised to discover that he liked the quality of his higher register – and after a fateful audition just one month later, opera legend Marilyn Horne connected him with a manager. Less than a year after discovering his countertenor voice, Bejun made his New York City Opera debut as Armindo in Handel’s “Partinope.”
Since his first operatic role in 1998, Bejun has gained a reputation as one of the finest countertenors of a generation. Described by Opera News as “perhaps the most sophisticated and musically satisfying of today’s countertenors,” Bejun regularly performs repertoire ranging from Baroque to contemporary music in addition to his thriving opera career.
Among dozens of other notable projects, Bejun’s 2011 solo CD Ombra Cara, a collection of Handel arias, won the ECHO Klassik for Best Operatic Recording of the Year. Bejun has recorded extensively after his 1983 debut record; his most recent album, CANTATA – yet can I hear…, was released in 2018 and received the Diapason d’Or distinction. In 2012 and 2013, Bejun appeared in both premiere casts of George Benjamin’s opera Written on Skin; the role of the Boy was created specifically for him. A new recording of Handel’s Orlando with Bejun in the title role was released in 2014, and in the same year, ArtHaus released a complete, staged film recording of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice with Bejun as star and artistic advisor.
Resources & More
As a longtime supporter of Bejun’s boy soprano career, Leonard Bernstein once remarked, “It is hard to believe the richness and maturity of musical understanding in this adolescent boy.”
Bejun won a GRAMMY award for his production work on Janos Starker’s 1997 recording of Bach’s Cello Suites.
- Semele, “Where’er you walk,” Bejun (1987)
- Bach Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major, I. Prelude – Janos Starker (1997)
- Giulio Cesare in Egitto, “L’empio, Sleale, Indegno” (2003)
- Handel: Ombra cara “Aria Voi, che udito il mio lamento” (2010)
- Ralph Vaughan Williams, “Bright is the Ring of Words,” Down By the Salley Gardens (2011)
- George Benjamin, Written on Skin, “Part One, Scene IV: Agnes and the Boy I” (2012)
- Jose de Nebra, “Vendado amor es, no ciego” El Maestro Farinelli (2014)
- Handel Orlando: Act I, 15. Aria “Fammi combattere” (2014)
- Handel, “I Will Magnify Thee,” Cantata (2018)
Sources and Further Reading
Career Reborn, on a High Note (New York Times, 1998)
A New Voice, Fully Formed (Los Angeles Times, 1999)