The conductor Zubin Mehta was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), Maharashtra state, India. 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, and he gave Zubin his first musical education. At the age of 18, after short period of pre-medical studies in Bombay, Zubin left for Vienna in 1954, entered the Akademie für Musik there, 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 in 1958 led to a one-year appointment as their assistant conductor. After completing his year-long tenure, Mehta was engaged to conduct the Wiener Philharmoniker, and made another important and successful guest conducting position with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He was also a prize-winner of the summer academy at Tanglewood. By 1961 he had already conducted also the the Berliner Philharmoniker and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and still retains close ties with these orchestras.
Guest appearances with the Montreal and Los Angeles symphonies both led to permanent positions. Zubin Mehta was Music Director of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra from 1961 to 1967, becoming Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra in 1962 (he had been associate conductor since 1960), a post he retained until 1978. 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. His accomplishments in Los Angeles, 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" USA 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. In 1971 he conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra on the soundtrack of Frank Zappa's film 200 Motels.
In 1968 Zubin Mehta also became Music Adviser to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and was made Music Director of that orchestra in 1977. In 1981 he was made Music Director for life. Zubin Mehta has conducted over two thousand concerts with this extraordinary ensemble including tours spanning five continents.
In 1978 Zubin Mehta resigned his Los Angeles post to succeed Pierre Boulez as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After the rather ascetic, ultra-modern Pierre 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. His tenure with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra lasting 13 years, the longest in the orchestra's history.
Zubin Mehta made his debut as an opera conductor with Tosca in Montreal in 1963. He made his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 29, 1965. Since then he has conducted at the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala Milan, and the opera houses of Chicago and Florence as well as at the Salzburg Festival. Since 1985, he has been chief conductor of the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in Florence. Between 1998 and 2006 he was Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera where he conducted more that 400 performances. Since 2007 he is the President of the Festival del Mediterrani of the Palau de les Arts in Valencia.
In 1990 Zubin 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.
In 1998, 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.
Zubin Mehta's list of awards and honours is extensive and includes the "Nikisch-Ring" bequeathed to him by Karl Böhm. He is an honorary citizen of both Florence and Tel Aviv and was made an honorary member of the Vienna State Opera in 1997. In 1999 Zubin Mehta was presented the "Lifetime Achievement Peace and Tolerance Award" of the United Nations. In 2001 he was bestowed the title of “Honorary Conductor” of the Wiener Philharmoniker and in 2004 the Wiener Philharmoniker awarded him the same title, as did the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra and the Teatro del Maggio Musicale Fiorentino in 2006. At the end of his tenure with the Bavarian State Opera he was named Honorary Conductor of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester and Honorary Member of the Bavarian State Opera. In December 2006 he received the “Kennedy Center Honor”. The Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde Wien appointed him in November 2007 honorary member. In October 2008 Zubin Mehta was honoured by the Japanese Imperial Family with the “Praemium Imperiale”.
In October 2006 Zubin Mehta opened the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia in Valencia with Ludwig van L.v. Beethoven’s Fidelio, followed by a three year project of Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen in the production of the Fura del Baus of Barcelona in Valencia and Florence.