Conductor Zubin Mehta was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), Maharashtra state, India on April 29, 1936. He is an adherent of the Parsi religion. His father was Mehli Mehta, a violinist who was the founder and conductor of the Bombay Symphony Orchestra. At the age of 18, after considering a career in medicine, Zubin entered the Vienna Academy of Music, learned to play the double bass in order to join the Academy's orchestra, and took conducting lessons from Hans Swarowsky. He graduated from the Academy in 1957 and made his professional debut in Vienna, guest conducting the Tonkünstler Orchestra. In a London appearance in 1961, Mehta became the first Indian to conduct a major British orchestra. A victory in the first international conductors' competition organized by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra led to a one-year appointment as their assistant conductor. After completing his year-long tenure, Mehta was engaged to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and made another important and successful guest conducting position with the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Guest appearances with the Montreal and Los Angeles symphonies both led to permanent positions; in 1960 he became music director in Montreal and associate conductor in Los Angeles. Thus Mehta became one of the first of a new breed of conductors sometimes called the "jet set," who are able to maintain two (or even more) principal conductorships of major orchestras by means of frequently flying between the cities involved.
Mehta's accomplishments in Los Angeles, where he became musical director in 1962, were particularly striking. In just a few years he was able to turn the lackluster ensemble into one of the nation's finest orchestras, and, still under 30 years of age when he was appointed, he became the youngest music director of any "major" U.S. orchestra. An exuberant, extroverted performer and person, he possessed a genuine star quality; soon, he conducted the orchestra on a notable series of excellent recordings for London (Decca) Records. Mehta made his operatic debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 29, 1965, and in 1967 he resigned his position in Montreal, and forged a new relationship with the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, eventually becoming its chief music adviser in 1970. In 1971 he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic on the soundtrack of Frank Zappa's film 200 Motels.
In 1978 he resigned his Los Angeles post to succeed Pierre Boulez as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After the rather ascetic, ultra-modern Boulez, Mehta's interest in lush Romanticism, and a more traditional repertoire made for a favorable impression, and a long and successful relationship with the orchestra. However, by the time of his resignation in 1991, a little of the bloom had faded from his relationship with the critics, some of whom seemed to be put off by the more "Hollywood" aspects of his style and personality.
In 1990 Mehta was asked to conduct the first of the now-legendary Three Tenors concerts. Mehta proved a highly appropriate choice, being one of the few conductors with the charisma to match the well-practiced stagecraft of the three star tenors. The concert was a huge success, with a worldwide television audience, and enormous record sales. When the phenomenon was repeated in 1994 from Los Angeles, Mehta again conducted.
Since 1998, Mehta has been music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich. That year, his path intersected with that of U.S. President Bill Clinton, as former Clinton associate Susan McDougal, who went to jail rather than testify against the president, was accused of embezzling $150,000 from the Mehta family, for whom she had worked for several years. He made several tours with the Bavarian State Opera and kept up a busy schedule of guest conducting appearances into the new century.