Begg, Dame (Isoleen) Heather (19322009), singer, was born in Nelson, South Island, New Zealand, on 1 December 1932. Her parents were both of Scottish origin. She was educated at Auckland Girls' Grammar School, where she played the double bass in the orchestra. She studied first in Auckland with Sister Mary Leo, a renowned singing teacher, and then at the New South Wales Conservatorium in Sydney. Awarded a bursary by the New Zealand government, she finished her vocal studies at the National Opera School in London. Engaged by the National Opera of Australia, she made her début in 1954 in Sydney as Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore.
Begg returned to London in 1959, when she made her début with the Royal Opera at Covent Garden as Grimgerde, one of the Valkyries in Wagner's Die Walküre. After two years touring with the Carl Rosa Company, in 1961 she joined Sadler's Wells Opera. On 1 January 1962, the day copyright for the Gilbert and Sullivan operas finally expired, Sadler's Wells opened with lolanthe at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon. Begg sang the Queen of the Fairies, scoring a great personal success, repeating it in London and on tour in Stuttgart. Other roles she sang for Sadler's Wells included Flora in Verdi's La traviata, Ragonde in Rossini's Count Ory, and Princess Clarissa in Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges.
In 1964 Begg returned to Auckland to sing Florence Pike in the first New Zealand performance of Britten's Albert Herring. That year she married a Canadian, Johnnie King (d. 1979). Rejoining Sadler's Wells, now moved to the London Coliseum, in 1969 she had an even greater triumph in Gilbert and Sullivan's Patience, as Lady Jane. Tall and imposing, in majestic voice, she accompanied herself on the double bass in Silver'd is the Raven Hair, earning a standing ovation. Meanwhile she now had a contract with the Royal Opera, appearing the same year as Anna, Dido's sister, in the second part of Berlioz's Les Troyens.
During the next seven seasons at Covent Garden, Begg sang a wide variety of roles in Italian, French, German, and Russian operas. These included Teresa in Bellini's La sonnambula, Marcellina in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, Mary in Wagner's Der fliegende Holländer, Emilia in Verdi's Otello, Mamma Lucia in Mascagni's Cavalleria rusticana, Adelaide in Arabella and Herodias in Salome, both by Richard Strauss, Marina in Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov, Madame Larina in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, Marthe in Gounod's Faust, and Mrs Sedley in Britten's Peter Grimes. She repeated Marcellina at Chicago in 1975 and at the 1976 Salzburg Festival, and sang the role in a film directed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (1975).
For the last twenty years of her career Begg sang mainly with Australian Opera; she made her home in Sydney after her husband died. Her roles became more important: during the 1970s they included Amneris in Verdi's Aida, Bizet's Carmen, Lady Pamela in Auber's Fra Diavolo, and Mistress Quickly in Verdi's Falstaff; during the 1980s she sang Bradamante in Handel's Alcina, Princess de Bouillon in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur, Mère Marie in Poulenc's Dialogues des Carmélites, and in 1986 Mrs Bonner in the world première of Richard Meale's Voss, based on the novel by Patrick White. In 1990 she sang Mère Marie at San Diego, followed by the Marquise in Donizetti's La Fille du Régiment. She repeated the Marquise in Barcelona in 1993 and with Australian Opera in 1997. Meanwhile in 1995 she took part in the première of Alan John's The Eighth Wonder, an opera about the construction of the Sydney Opera House, playing a singing teacher. In December 1998 she made a farewell appearance with the Royal Opera as Ludmilla in Smetana's The Bartered Bride, performed at Sadler's Wells Theatre since Covent Garden was undergoing reconstruction; it was forty years since her début with the company. Her last appearance in Sydney was in 2006, when she sang Grandmother Burya in Janáček's Jenufa.
Begg was appointed OBE in 1978 and a distinguished companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DNZM) in 2000. In March 2009 the New Zealand government offered her and eighty-four other New Zealanders who held the same or an equivalent honour the option of taking the title of a dame or knight. She was by then seriously ill with leukaemia, and her damehood was thus announced early, on 17 April. She died in Sydney on 12 May 2009.
Opera, 1057 (19592006) · S. Sadie, ed., The new Grove dictionary of opera, 4 vols. (1992) · Dominion Post [Wellington, New Zealand] (15 May 2009) · The Times (21 May 2009); (10 July 2009) · Daily Telegraph (21 May 2009) · The Press [Christchurch, New Zealand] (23 May 2009) · The Guardian (1 June 2009) · personal knowledge (2013) · private information (2013)
BFI NFTVA, performance footage
BL NSA, performance recordings
P. Riviere, group portrait, photograph, 2006, Getty Images, London