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Exclusive extract - Zubin Mehta biography - At first, my mother thought it was incest

Making light of life's twists comes as easy to Zubin Mehta as being a genius. Here’s an exclusive extract from a biography to launch next week during his 80th birthday homecoming

A child of music
It was becoming increasingly obvious to Zubin that his future lay in music. Unsurprisingly, when his anatomy teacher asked him to cut up a dogfish in a practical class, Zubin left the room with the words: 'Cut it up yourself!' Zubin recalls, 'Every time I sat down to cut up a dogfish, there I was with a Brahms symphony running through my head.' It was clear to everyone that his medical career was ending even before it had started. Zubin told Mehli that he wanted to study music in Vienna where his cousin Dady — the only Mehta other than Mehli and Zubin interested in making music — was learning the piano under Bruno Seidlhofer at the Vienna Music Academy (...)

With Hollywood filmmaker Woody Allen (extreme right)
With Hollywood filmmaker Woody Allen (extreme right)

I do

While Zubin's conducting career seemed unstoppable, his marriage had not been a success. Even though Carmen [Lasky; first wife] and he divorced in 1964, the cracks were apparent if one read between the lines of an interview Carmen gave to Los Angeles Times in January 1962: 'He just lives...lives for his work.' Carmen could not recount a schedule for their life. 'You see, we haven't had a chance to develop a routine. It's like following an orchestral score. It depends on the music.' With a touch of sadness in her voice, she also said: 'I don't like the separations from Zubin but they are inevitable... He works and lives at such a high pitch, I just feel exhausted for a week after he goes.'


Pic/Getty Images

As noted before, when Carmen and Zubin returned to Montreal from Russia in 1962, he began divorce proceedings. The immediate provocation appears to have been the soprano Stratas. 'It just happened.' Carmen said, 'I never did anything nasty to him, and he never did anything nasty to me.' There was a separation, a Mexican divorce, followed by an annulment in Ottawa. There was no rancour in the break-up, no pettiness. Carmen said that she always thought of him as a musician and not as her former husband. He was, above all, Zubin the conductor.

After a first marriage to Carmen Lasky (he has two children from her), who is now married to his younger brother, Zarin, in 1969, Zubin married former film and TV actress Nancy Kovack (above). The couple has had their share of trouble. Dadabhoy writes, Alexandra, his daughter, was born in Los Angeles in 1967, the offspring of an affair Zubin had between his marriages. (Zubin has also fathered a son, Ori, now in his twenties, who was the result of a casual liaison in Israel after he had married Nancy. He has completed his army training and now studies in an agricultural college in Rehovot). Pic/Getty Images
After a first marriage to Carmen Lasky (he has two children from her), who is now married to his younger brother, Zarin, in 1969, Zubin married former film and TV actress Nancy Kovack (above). The couple has had their share of trouble. Dadabhoy writes, Alexandra, his daughter, was born in Los Angeles in 1967, the offspring of an affair Zubin had between his marriages. (Zubin has also fathered a son, Ori, now in his twenties, who was the result of a casual liaison in Israel after he had married Nancy. He has completed his army training and now studies in an agricultural college in Rehovot). Pic/Getty Images

By 1964 the divorce was complete. After his divorce, Zubin led the life of a bachelor once again and appears to have had a pretty busy life as far as women were concerned. It seemed he always had a pretty girl in tow. The image of 'playboy conductor' grew, thanks in no small measure to his most trenchant critic, Bernheimer of Los Angeles Times. But he never made false promises to his numerous conquests who offered little resistance to the combination of good looks and musical deification. Women found his tousled hair, piercing eyes and magnetic personality difficult to resist. Alexandra, his daughter, was born in Los Angeles in 1967, the offspring of an affair Zubin had between his marriages (...)

Mehta with childhood friend from Bombay and billionaire scientist and pharma baron Yusuf Hamied. (Pic/Zubin Mehta: A MUSICAL JOURNEY)
Mehta with childhood friend from Bombay and billionaire scientist and pharma baron Yusuf Hamied. (Pic/Zubin Mehta: A MUSICAL JOURNEY)

Zubin's affair with Stratas which started on their trip with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra to Russia was the final straw for Zubin's marriage. Stratas who was called 'Baby Callas' (a reference to her diminutive physical stature) is today regarded as one of the foremost talents of the last century. She was a 'lirico spinto', a soprano whose range encompassed the light and the dramatic. The affair was serious enough for marriage to be discussed and the couple was engaged to be wed. Zubin told a newspaper in February 1965 that he planned to marry the soprano 'next summer'. Speaking to Los Angeles Times from Montreal, Zubin said that no date had been fixed for the wedding because 'we are both professionals and neither of us can be at our beck and call'.

Zubin Mehta with his mother Tehmina on his wedding day. (PIC/Zubin Mehta: A MUSICAL JOURNEY)
Zubin Mehta with his mother Tehmina on his wedding day. (PIC/Zubin Mehta: A MUSICAL JOURNEY) 

But things started to sour after the initial infatuation. Both were devoted to their careers and one of them would have to give it up. It was not going to be Zubin. And, as Zubin discovered, it was not going to be Stratas either. She told the press that Zubin had asked her to give up singing. 'I just couldn't see myself going through life as Mrs Conductor,' she said. They split sometime in 1967. When I asked Zubin about the relationship, he said, 'She didn't want to marry. I was in Los Angeles and she was at the Metropolitan in New York.'

Stratas continued with her highly successful career but ended up as a recluse. (In the 1980s, Stratas travelled to Calcutta and worked with Mother Teresa. In the 1990s she cared for sick and dying orphans in a hospital in Romania.) (...)

The situation [Mehta's wife Carmen marrying his brother Zarin] was a little odd at first but things soon settled down. They were one big happy family. 'At first, my mother thought it was incest, but I explained it to her,' he once said. One of Zubin's favourite lines was: 'I must remember that my ex-wife is now my sister-in-law. But so far, the children haven't called me uncle.' Many years later, Mervon [Mehta and Carmen's son] told an interviewer: 'After my parents divorced, my mother married Zarin. It was like Hamlet, only no one got killed. I adored my uncle so it didn't feel strange when he moved in.' (...)

Music in the family
Mehli [Zubin's violinist and orchestra conductor father] attributed his continuing vigour to hard work: 'Conducting is one of the most physically tiring things in the world. We not only concentrate, and think of the music and remember the music and all that. But we have to impart it to a hundred boys and girls or men and women who are in the orchestra. A good conductor uses this arm, the right arm, for the tempo and for the rhythms and all that, and the left arm for the expression. You see, so both arms are working together. The chest is working, lungs are working, brain is working, everything is working together except the legs. And even the legs.

Mehli disdained the score and conducted from memory, a practice which Zubin also adopted. His logic was simple: 'Just as we keep our body in good shape by exercising, you have to exercise your memory also. And therefore every concert throughout the season, a whole season, I [conduct] from memory... I come from what I call the golden age of music, when no one used a score. Today's great conductors — let's even leave my darling son Zubin out of it — but Abbado, Maazel, Ozawa, all conduct from memory.

Mehli was a highly competent conductor in his own right. But for many, he was placed in the curious position of potential paternal also-ran. In April 1968, he filled in for Munch who had cancelled his concerts with the Montreal Symphony. The brutal question on everyone's mind before the performance was, who is Mehli Mehta, other than Zubin's father? True, he played the violin and had conducted some minor orchestras, but would he have qualified as the head of the orchestra department at UCLA had Zubin not been his son?

Bernheimer of Los Angeles Times, who was often unkind to the son, gave the father an unqualified testimonial. He wrote: 'Now that we have heard the performance, the doubts are resolved and rude questions seem academic. Mehli Mehta is a fully qualified conductor with a thorough knowledge of his craft.

Extracted and reproduced from Zubin Mehta: A Musical Journey by Bakhtiar K Dadadbhoy (R899) with permission from Penguin-Random House India.

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