Opera Scotland

Heather Begg Suggest updates

Dame Isoleen Heather Begg.

Born Nelson, 1 December 1932.

Died Sydney, 21 May 2009. 

New Zealand mezzo-soprano.

OBE (1978);  DNCZM Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (2000);  DNZM Dame Companion (April 2009).

Heather Begg studied in Auckland under Sister Mary Leo, then in Sydney at the New South Wales Conservatorium.  She made her debut with National Opera of Australia in 1954 as Azucena and won the Sydney Sun Aria Contest the following year.  She moved to London in 1957 with a bursary from the National School of Opera.

She appeared briefly in the last months of Carl Rosa in 1959, made her Covent Garden debut (as a Valkyrie), and joined Sadler's Wells in 1960.  Her early roles with SWO included Offenbach (Juno Orpheus in the Underworld, Baroness Vie Parisienne);  Rossini (Tisbe);  Smetana (Ludmila);  Verdi (Flora Bervoix) and Sullivan (Fairy Queen Iolanthe).  She also appeared with the New Opera Company and English Opera Group.

During the period 1964-6 she worked in New Zealand, before returning to Sadler's Wells 1967-9.  This second London period was particularly noted for her superb interpretation in the John Cox staging of Patience.  This once popular G&S work, with its satire of the aesthetic movement, had somewhat fallen from favour, but John Stoddart's designs and some superb performances made it seem wonderfully fresh.  Central to all was the majestic Lady Jane.  The stage directions required the character to open the second act accompanying herself on the cello.  However Heather Begg's instrument was the double bass, and her outlandish performance invariably brought the house down.

In 1969 she transferred to the Royal Opera House as principal mezzo, remaining in the company until 1976.  Her performances included Mozart (Marcellina);  Bellini (Teresa, Clotilde);  Berlioz (Anna Les Troyens);  Gounod (Marthe);  Verdi (Sofia I Lombardi, Flora Bervoix, Emilia);  Wagner (Mary Fliegende Holländer);  Mascagni (Mamma Lucia);  Musorgsky (Marina);  Tchaikovsky (Larina);  Puccini (Zita Gianni Schicchi);  Janáček (Grandmother Jenůfa);  Strauss (Herodias, Solo Voice Frau ohne Schatten, Adelaide) and Britten (Mrs Sedley).

Apart from her tours with Sadler's Wells, her visits to Scotland were rare.  Her only appearance with Scottish Opera came at the 1968 Festival Fringe, in a late night staging of Monteverdi's Ballo delle ingrate.   Her ribald interpretation of Venus should have invited a return.

In 1976 she was invited to become principal mezzo with the Australian Opera.  Parts there included Verdi (Amneris),  Wagner (Magdalene),  Bizet (Carmen) and Musorgsky (Marina).  Operetta appearances included Kálmán (Hilde Gypsy Princess) and Sullivan (Lady Jane, Katisha).  She emerged from retirement in 2006 to sing Grandmother Buryovka once more.

She appears as Marcellina in the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle film of Le nozze di Figaro. There are Australian operetta DVDs of The Gypsy Princess, Patience and The Mikado.

Her audio recordings include Bellini (Enrichetta I Puritani);  Berlioz (Anna Les Troyens);  Boito (Martha Mefistofele) and Sullivan (Fairy Queen lolanthe excerpts).

Roles in Scotland

Flora Bervoix Violetta's friend
Traviata 1961
Tisbe Clorinda's sister
Cenerentola 1961
Juno Jupiter's wife
Orphée aux Enfers 1961
Ludmila Krušina's wife
Bartered Bride 1962
Queen of the Fairies
Iolanthe 1962
Baroness Christine Gondremarck's wife
Vie Parisienne 1964
Venere Venus, goddess of love
Ballo delle ingrate 1968
Lady Jane a rapturous maiden
Patience 1969

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