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Remembering Anne Brown, Gershwin's original Bess

Todd Duncan and Anne Brown in George Gershwin's <em>Porgy and Bess</em>.
Bettmann Archive
Todd Duncan and Anne Brown in George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess.

Updated August 25, 2022 at 3:29 PM ET

Composer George Gershwin heard only one Bess sing in Porgy and Bess. Soprano Anne Brown had written him a letter when she read that he was writing a folk opera about African Americans in South Carolina. She was a native of Baltimore, the great-granddaughter of slaves on her father's side, and the first Black vocalist ever accepted at Juilliard. Might he consider her for a part, she wondered.

As the world discovered when his folk opera premiered, he could do better than that.

For audiences in 1935, Brown must have seemed to own the role of Bess. At a time when there were precious few classically trained Black singers, this newcomer was a revelation.

Offended at her audition

She was a 23-year-old music student when she stood before Gershwin, auditioning with Schubert and Brahms, the classical music she was studying at the Juilliard School. But he wanted to hear her sing a Negro spiritual.

Brown was offended, but she sang "A City Called Heaven" without accompaniment, and Gershwin immediately knew he had his leading lady.

Except that his folk opera didn't have a leading-lady part: In Porgy, the DuBose Heyward novel, Bess is just one of many poor black characters. But Gershwin was so taken with Anne Brown that he kept adding material for her.

One day after a rehearsal, Gershwin sat Brown down and told her the show she was in would no longer be called just Porgy. Brown had literally put the Bess in Porgy and Bess. There was still one thing she wanted, and after much cajoling, she got it — a reprise of a lullaby sung by another character. It was called "Summertime."

A Lukewarm Reception, And A Strong Stand

In October of 1935, Porgy and Bess opened at New York's Alvin Theater to general confusion from the critics. They weren't sure whether they had seen an opera or a musical, and either way, they were mixed on it.

Still, they liked Brown and Todd Duncan, who played Porgy. So the company headed out on tour — a sometimes rocky tour. In Washington, D.C., near Brown's hometown of Baltimore, she refused to perform when the company was booked into a segregated auditorium. Duncan backed her, the management backed down — and for that one week in 1936, Black people and white people sat together at the National Theatre, two blocks from the White House.

Though Brown's operatic career boomed, she became so fed up with racial prejudice that she relocated to Europe, where she married an Olympic skier and raised a family in Oslo, Norway.

Chronic asthma ended her singing career in the 1950s, but for decades after that, she taught music and directed operas — including a Norwegian production of Porgy and Bess done with white singers in blackface because Norway simply didn't have any black opera singers.

Brown remained philosophical about that sort of thing well into her 90s, sometimes offering interviewers a line that sounded a lot like something Bess might say: "We tough girls tough it out."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.
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