Dame Heather Begg was a mezzo-soprano from New Zealand who made an indelible
impression in a wide variety of roles in a long and distinguished
career. Heather studied at the Sydney Conservatory of Music and from
1954 to 1956 she sang as principal mezzo soprano with the National Opera
of Australia before winning a New Zealand Government bursary in 1956 which
enabled her to study at the National School of Opera in London.
Between 1959 and 1962 she appeared with the Carl Rosa Opera Company, the
New Opera Company, the Royal Opera and the English Opera Group in a wide
variety of roles. From 1961 until 1964 she sang as principal
mezzo-soprano with Sadler's Wells. In 1964 she returned to New
Zealand and sang with the New Zealand Opera Company until 1966.
Heather then returned to Britain and joined the Royal Opera where her many
roles have included Teresa in La Sonnambula, Emilia in Otello, Anna
in Les Troyens, Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria Rusticana, Marina
in Boris Godunov, Larina in Eugene Onegin.
I first heard her voice in an
English language Cenerentola produced by Australian television in the
mid-sixties. As was often the case in those times, singers didn't
get to act the part. Their role was taken by an actor apparently deemed
more suitable for the part. In this case we had a china-doll
Cinderella who really did not quite match the rich tones of Heather Begg !
Later, I saw her Juno in a television production of Orpheus in the
Underworld with the delectable June Bronhill as Eurydice. (CA188).
In 1975 Heather appeared with the
Chicago Lyric Opera in a production of Le Nozze di Figaro.
Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was sufficiently impressed
by Heather's Marcellina to invite her to appear in his film version
along with Mirella Freni as Susanna and Herman Prey as Figaro.
Richard Bonynge's invitation to
join the Australian Opera brought Heather back to the Antipodes and she
became a stalwart member of the company. Her Lady Pamela in Fra
Diavolo was sheer delight as was her portrayal of the Marquise in La
Fille du Régiment. She could put on the power when required and
gave a formidable interpretation of the Princess opposite the Adriana
Lecouvreur of Joan Sutherland.
Despite being worried by a
condition which made ease of movement not that easy, Heather was very
pleased to be able to appear on stage again in 2006 as the Grandmother,
with the Jenufa of Cheryl Barker. Heather could still
"deliver the goods" ! A lady of keen intelligence, great
charm and generosity, she is a singer who continues to be remembered with
affection by all those who have enjoyed her portrayals on the operatic stage over many
On April 17th 2009
Heather Begg was made a Dame Companion of The New Zealand Order of Merit.
She passed away on May 12th 2009 after a long battle with a blood
DAME HEATHER BEGG
Dame Heather Begg was one of New Zealand’s most distinguished vocal exports. In a career covering more than half a century she was a principal soloist in the major opera houses of the world, and her deep rich voice was frequent singing partner to Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, Dame Kiri, Placido Domingo, Montserrat Caballe, Dame Janet Baker, Jose Carreras, Dame Malvina Major, Sir Donald McIntyre and almost every other prominent singer on the globe.
Heather Begg’s music training began in the orchestra of Auckland Girls’ Grammar, and then the back row of Auckland’s Junior Symphony Orchestra, playing the double bass. But conductor Gordon Cole discovered she could sing - and not just sing, but with a rare mezzo sound. Coached initially by Sister Mary Leo, she was then polished into operatic style by retired European opera star Gertude Narev.
An appointment with the National Opera of Australia was arranged, and after one audition Heather Begg was hired on the spot as a soloist in the company. At the age of 22 she made a notable debut in the demanding role of Azucena
(‘Il Trovatore’) and the company and reviewers took notice immediately that this very young mezzo was first-class operatic material. She went on to win the Sydney “Sun” aria and the citizens of Auckland staged a big fund-raising farewell concert in the Town Hall.
London-based, she quickly caught the attention of the Carla Rosa Opera, with whom she appeared in four principal roles before being offered a place at Sadlers Wells Opera, where she became principal mezzo. Besides her commanding appearance and authoritative voice, an unexpected gift for comedy emerged, and she made an enormous success in Gilbert and Sullivan - especially “Patience” ( where as Lady Jane she accompanied herself on the double bass), in the BBC television special of “The Gondoliers” as the imperious Duchess of Plaza Toro, then hit the London headlines as a spectacular Queen of the Fairies in “Iolanthe” - which she sang for more than one hundred performances in five different countries ( including New Zealand in 1967).
The Royal Opera House Covent Garden beckoned, and Heather Begg became resident principal mezzo there and sang forty different roles on that famous stage - most memorably on the night in 1971 when she sang Marcellina to Kiri Te Kanawa’s debut performance of the Countess in “Marriage of Figaro” - which Heather described as a “breathtaking night” which made musical history. The two NZers remained firm friends for the following 38 years. Heather repeated the Marcellina role in France, America, Australia, Austria and in the
Ponnelle film with Kiri.
In 1976 Heather Begg accepted “ an offer she couldn’t refuse” to relocate and become principal mezzo in the Australian Opera, where she made a brilliant debut as Princess Amneris in “Aida” followed by nearly fifty other different roles. Again she portrayed both dignity ( as Flora in “Traviata” with Kiri) and infectious comedy (as Mistress Quickly in “Falstaff” and the frenetic Lady Allcash in ”Fra Diavolo” -
an operatic version of Hyacinth Bucket).
Heather Begg sang over 100 different operatic roles in five languages. On-stage she was seen as a long list of aristocrats, funny spinsters, peasants, aunts, sorceresses, mothers, princesses, best friends, nuns, and even a love-sick bearded lady.
Besides returning for guest seasons at Covent Garden, she sang in Chicago, Vienna, San Diego, Barcelona, San Francisco, Berlin, Vancouver, Bordeaux, Brussels , Strasbourg, Singapore, the Salzburg Festival and La Scala Milan.
Although the Australian media referred to her as “a national treasure”
she retained her New Zealand connection at all times and firmly corrected “Who’s Who” when they wanted to list her as Australian.
Her return visits to New Zealand included engagements with the NZSO, the Christchurch Symphony, the Auckland APO, for TVNZ and the NZ Opera Company. In one of her most memorable roles back in NZ she was dressed as a man ( the Russian Prince Orlovsky in “Die Fledermaus”) and strangely looked astonishingly like Paul McCartney. At the time her husband watching in the audience remarked that it made him feel “very odd.”
Her husband died unexpectedly in 1979, and she later said that working in “the fantasy world of opera” was all that had helped her overcome the grief and shock of his going.
In 2000, Heather Begg was awarded DCNZM by the New Zealand Government and was the first person to be told that although this was the equivalent to a Damehood she was not permitted to be addressed as Dame - until the new Prime Minister reversed that ruling in 2009.
She sang her last performance in 2006 in “Jenufa” at the Sydney Opera House, ending a major career covering fifty-three years as a distinguished soloist.
Her ‘redesignation’ as Dame was announced in April this year.
- Max Cryer