Zubin Mehta was rehearsing Così fan tutte in his beloved Florence, where he has collaborated for almost 60 years.
I love this city, I am now part of the furniture. Intendent [Alexander] Pereira knows all the singers in the world and luckily [the mayor, Dario] Nardella is in close contact with the theatre, not like Ed Koch in New York who in 11 years in office never came to one of my concerts with the New York Philharmonic. I told him, what kind of Jew are you that doesn’t like music?.
Mehta had a long collaboration with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
50 years! I developed a political consciousness there. I asked [Prime Minister] Menachem Begin to send me with the orchestra to play in Cairo, but he told me that first he had to sign the settlements agreement with Sadat. I didn’t even know the meaning of the word. I don’t agree with Netanyahu on anything and [in 2019] I said goodbye to Israel. On the last tour, with Mahler’s Third, the women of the orchestra had their make-up running down their cheeks with tears.
[I met Alma Mahler] in her New York home with Bauhaus furniture that felt like Vienna. She held my hand the whole time, and in the other she had a Kokoschka fan. The atmosphere was certainly theatrical.
He conducted the lavish production of Turandot that was filmed live in the Forbidden City in 1998.
The Chinese government didn’t want it to happen, as they said Zhang Yimou, the director, was making films against their country. So I went to the foreign minister with a box of Bombay mango biscuits. If you conduct, he said, it’s OK. They had to use coverings to disguise some of the damage left by Bertolucci when he made The Last Emperor. They were still angry.
In mid-February this year, Mehta had to relinquish conducting Salome at La Scala after being taken to hospital during rehearsals.
I had problems concentrating, and I made mistakes that I don’t make. I asked for a break before starting the rehearsal again, but [Dominique] Meyer, the Intendant, insisted on taking me to hospital. It was a slight ischaemia. I didn’t suffer; I didn’t feel anything. I have so many memories of La Scala. I made my debut in 1962 when I conducted Webern’s Six Pieces, and people loudly closed the doors to the theatre’s boxes in protest.
He married his wife, actress Nancy Kovack, in 1969, though his four children are from other relationships. His oldest children, Mervon and Zarina, were with his first wife, Canadian soprano Carmen Lasky.
One of them, Ory, was born from a relationship in Israel. We had communication problems because I’m not Jewish and I don’t speak Hebrew. Now we are friends. Nancy has been a mother to Alexandra [born between marriages]. My wife suffered a lot.
Three years ago he battled with cancer.
It all stemmed from a knee problem. I was in Los Angeles and there wasn’t an American on the medical team: the head of the team was Israeli, the surgeon Syrian, an Indian for the biopsy, and the two oncologists were Greek and German! Music, and this is not a cliché, helped me get through it. I was thinking about it as I was put under: what would I take to a desert island? Bach’s Mass in B minor. I have never conducted it because it scares me, so there I could study it for the rest of my life. On 29 April I will be 85 years old and I will celebrate with a concert in Berlin with Barenboim.
Mehta left India at 18 to study in Vienna.
I arrived in 1954 in a city destroyed by bombs and occupied by foreign forces. I remember the hard stare of the Russian soldiers. The greats of music were already there. I had grown up in Bombay with an orchestra of amateurs: the brass from the Navy band played in uniform, and the strings were Parsis (my religion) and amateur Jewish refugees. I remember standing to see Böhm with the Vienna Philharmonic. That sound is still inside me today. For 18 years I tried to reproduce it at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
[Los Angeles] is a city of movie stars, and a world completely disconnected from our world. It was musically a desert then. I lived ten minutes away from the Centre for German Culture, which Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht had attended. They didn’t speak to each other: Mann wasn’t right-wing, but the other was too left-wing. In the United States, I refused to conduct for the cinema except for Manhattan where the music was by Gershwin. The whole cast – Mariel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Diane Keaton – came to hear us recording it in the studio. Woody Allen was very humble.
I once said that the greatest singer is Domingo. The day I said it I was with Pavarotti who was a real gentleman and didn’t make any comment. He just welcomed me to Modena with a cake.
Zubin Mehta was talking to the Corriere della Sera’s Valerio Cappelli