The American countertenor Bejun Mehta is currently singing the title role in Händel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto at La Scala in Milan. This new production by Robert Carsen is conducted by Giovanni Antonini, and features a stellar cast, including Danielle de Niese, Philippe Jaroussky and Christophe Dumaux. Bejun Mehta took a moment between performances to talk with the editors of Classicagenda about the role of Cesare and performing at La Scala.
You are returning to La Scala, after your highly acclaimed performances of Tamerlano in 2017. This year, in addition to performing the title role in Giulio Cesare, La Scala has also invited you to give a solo recital. How is performing at La Scala different from other opera houses ?
There’s certainly a magic to performing at La Scala. It’s not just that it’s one of the greatest opera houses in the world and that it has such a storied history. It’s also that the Milanese are justly proud of it and you feel its civic place in the city. It’s a little similar to the way certain cities support their sports teams. It also can be a wildly chaotic place, especially on a new production. Certain opera houses have their systems organized to the nth degree, and certain places, like Scala, have many layers of bureaucracy in every department and therefore can be a little challenging. That sounds like criticism, but it’s really not. My first time here the Scala system took some getting used to, but you start to realize that at every level people care deeply about their area of work. Perhaps it takes a little longer to get to the final result, but then the result has the investment of many caring hands. This process also keeps you from settling too quickly into routine…and routine is the killer of performance.
I should also mention that Scala has informed me that I’ll be the first countertenor in history to give a solo recital with piano on the mainstage, so that’s of course quite an honor.
And lastly, I’d just like to point out that Italy has been a little later to join the countertenor revolution than France, Germany, Austria, the UK, etc. Again, this is not a criticism, it’s just how it’s worked out historically. But for me personally, it’s been meaningful to be at the head of the spear, so to speak, to incorporate two major title roles and a recital in the most important Italian opera house, to play my part in opening up this new territory to the understanding and acceptance of countertenors.
This is a new production by Robert Carsen. What can you tell us about it ?
Well, when you’re in the middle of something–and in such a large role which doesn’t allow you to step outside of the production very much–you don’t always have a true sense of how the production actually comes across. According to press reports, however, it seems to have been a huge success for La Scala, which of course makes us all very happy. I can also tell you that Robert has directed Cesare to be a man of action rather than reflection.
Cecilia Bartoli had originally been cast in the role of Cleopatra, but pulled out a few months ago and was replaced by Danielle de Niese. How has this change affected the production and your own approach to the title role ?
How it changed the production is a question for Robert Carsen, but as for me it made no difference in how I approached the role in my own preparation. One finds many things for staging in the rehearsal process, and so of course what came to be between Danielle DeNiese and myself is necessarily different than what might have come to be with Cecilia Bartoli, but what those differences might have been can’t be known.
Giulio Cesare contains no less than eight highly demanding arias for the title role. How do you go about pacing yourself during a performance ?
Very simple : technique. You make sure your voice is technically sound to meet the challenges. That said, I’m always working technically so there wasn’t anything in particular I did differently to manage the demands of this part. All my leading roles, Orlando, Rinaldo, Cesare, Bertarido, Orfeo, etc etc, are roughly similar in their length. The difference with Cesare is that just about everything he sings is a showstopper in some way, a technical tour-de-force. Usually there’s more of a mixture…legato internal arias along with the blazing coloratura, somewhere to relax. Here it’s pretty much full on all the time. And then when there finally is an internal, slower aria, it’s the divine ‘Aure deh per pieta’, which is ten minutes long, followed immediately by another huge coloratura showpiece, ‘Quel torrente’. It’s quite a role !
The role of Cesare was originally written for the famous castrato Senesino (Francesco Bernardi, 1686 –1758). In your approach to singing music composed for castrati, do you find yourself searching for ways to recreate this lost timbre from the past, and if so, in what manner ?
Not at all. First of all, ancient recordings of Moreschi aside, we don’t really know what they sounded like. Secondly, trying to recreate something like that with different physical attributes seems pointless. In art, the thing which matters more than anything else is that one is authentically oneself.
You are not “just a singer” but have also been a cellist in orchestras and completed a degree in German literature at Yale. How do these experiences inform your singing ?
Everything you do artistically influences everything else. A simple example would be my years of playing cello both solo and in very good orchestras connects me immediately to the continuo cellist in anything I’m singing, particularly when it’s a coloratura showpiece. As for having gone to Yale rather than a music conservatory, that was a conscious choice. I had been accepted to Curtis as a cellist but felt so strongly it was more important to be educated properly and fully that I ended up turning Curtis down. Can you imagine ?? It was a hard decision as a seventeen-year-old, but the ultimate rationale was pretty simple : a well-rounded person makes a better artist, no matter the discipline.
Like Rene Jacobs, you are a countertenor who also conducts orchestras. How far do you see yourself taking this activity ? You have currently conducting Haydn and Mozart symphonies, but do you eventually plan on conducting full-length opera productions ? Or venturing and venture beyond baroque music into romantic or post-romantic symphonic repertoire ?
Conducting is a marvelous new addition to my career. Thus far I’ve been with orchestras like the Hessischer Rundfunk, Dresdner Philharmoniker, Kammerakademie Potsdam, and other like orchestras. One never knows how things will build and in which direction, but I’ve been fortunate to be multiply reinvited everywhere, so who knows ? I’ve got a lot more singing to do, but yes, absolutely I see myself conducting opera productions and can’t wait to get the first one on the books. It just makes sense…I’m doing a lot of Mozart and Haydn symphonic rep at the moment, but if one can find the internal drama of a symphony and one is a singer oneself–always dealing with the issues of dramaturgy–and one has spent one’s entire career in the opera house with its particular set of requirements and political realities, it seems only natural that conducting opera will be part of my future. As it is, there are already occasions where I’m preparing arias, both Baroque and Classical, with modern orchestras for myself to sing, so yes, I do feel all the tools are coming together for conducting opera.
Georg Friedrich Händel, Giulio Cesare in Egitto (1724)
Teatro alla Scala, new production
18 October-2 November 2019
Giulio Cesare/Bejun Mehta
Cleopatra/Danielle de Niese
Sesto Pompeo/Philippe Jaroussky
Sets and costumes/Gideon Davey
Lights/Robert Carsen and Peter van Praet