Dame Isoleen Heather Begg DNZM OBE (1 December 1932 - 12 May 2009) was a New Zealand-born operatic mezzo-soprano who spent most of her career in the United Kingdom and Australia. She was renowned in roles such as the title role in Bizet's Carmen, Amneris in Verdi's Aida and in lighter operas such as The Gondoliers. She appeared alongside Dame Joan Sutherland, Luciano Pavarotti, Beverly Sills, Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Plácido Domingo, Montserrat Caballé, Dame Janet Baker, José Carreras, Dame Malvina Major, Sir Donald McIntyre and many other prominent singers. Her recording with Glenys Fowles of the "Flower Duet" from Delibes's Lakmé has become famous.
Born in Nelson, New Zealand in December 1932, Begg studied in Auckland with Sister Mary Leo (as did many other New Zealand female singers, such as Malvina Major and Kiri Te Kanawa). Begg studied at the New South Wales State Conservatorium, during which time she won the 1955 Sydney Sun Aria contest. She was engaged as a principal mezzo-soprano with the National Opera of Australia from 1954 to 1956. Her professional debut was as Azucena in Verdi's Il trovatore. She went to London in 1957 to attend the UK's National School of Opera on a musical scholarship. 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. In 1959 she took part in the New Zealand Music Society's concert at the Wigmore Hall, with a performance of Hindemith's The Four Temperaments; the following year Sadler's Wells offered her the part of the Goddess Juno in Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld, where she discovered she had a talent for comic opera. She returned to New Zealand in 1964 to sing with the New Zealand Opera Company until 1966, but still made guest appearances at Bordeaux, Chicago and elsewhere.
She was named the principal resident mezzo-soprano at the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, where she stayed for 10 years (1969-76), singing with fellow New Zealander Kiri Te Kanawa (she appeared as Marcellina in Te Kanawa's debut as Countess Almaviva in The Marriage of Figaro), the Three Tenors (Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Plácido Domingo), and many others. Her roles there included Flora in La traviata, Mary in The Flying Dutchman, Emilia in Otello, Mamma Lucia in Cavalleria rusticana, Madame Larina in Eugene Onegin, the Grandmother in Jenůfa, Marthe in Faust, Mrs Sedley in Peter Grimes, Teresa in La sonnambula, Anna in Les Troyens, and Marina Mnishek in Boris Godunov. In 1975 she appeared as Marcellina in the Chicago Lyric Opera's production of The Marriage of Figaro, which led to her reprising the role in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's film of the work, where she appeared alongside Mirella Freni as Susanna and Hermann Prey as Figaro. She also appeared in Gilbert and Sullivan for the D'Oyly Carte Company, and she appeared in such roles at the BBC Proms.She also appeared as Katisha in The Mikado at The Sydney Opera House with The Australian Opera, a definitive performance of the character, and it was issued on video.
She had then accepted an invitation from Richard Bonynge to join the Australian Opera, where she remained for the rest of her career. Here she took on major roles such as Carmen and Amneris, and appeared in Boris Godunov and The Mastersingers of Nuremberg.
Her final appearance was at the Sydney Opera House in 2006 to recreate Grandmother Buryjovka in Jenůfa (which she had sung at Covent Garden in 1972 and 1974), conducted by Richard Hickox. Though her illness was now affecting her, her voice was still powerful.
On 12 May 2009 Begg died of leukemia, aged 76, in Canterbury Hospital, Campsie, Sydney, where she had made her home for many years.
She married Johnnie King, a Canadian, in 1964. He died in 1979, a few weeks before Begg, now a widow in real-life, undertook the role of the widow Popova in Sir William Walton's opera The Bear. They had no children.
Begg was appointed an Officer (OBE) of the Order of the British Empire in 1978 and in 2000 became a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DCNZM) for services to opera.
In April 2009, a month before her death, Begg's DNCZM was redesignated Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (DNZM) after the government of New Zealand decided in March 2009 to restore the titles of knights and dames to the honours system. She was the first person to be so designated; her illness caused it to be gazetted ahead of the normal honours list.